Text messaging rises sharply among teens and is now their
most frequent form of communication with friends

72% of those ages 12-17 now are texters and the average
young text user
exchanges 1,500 texts per month

Cell phones are mixed blessing to American families,
bringing safety and connection 
along with disruption and irritation

WASHINGTON DC – Daily text messaging among American teens has shot up in the past 18 months from 38% of teens texting friends daily in February of 2008, to 54% of teens texting daily in September 2009.

In fact, text messaging has become the most frequent way that teens reach their friends, surpassing face-to-face meetings, email, instant messaging and voice calling as a daily communications tool. However, cell phone calling is still the preferred mode that teens use to connect with their parents.

A new survey and report document that teens are sending enormous quantities of text messages each day. The typical American teen sends and receives 50 or more messages per day, or 1,500 per month. And there are a sizeable number who do much more than that:  

  • 31% of teens send and receive more than 100 messages per day or more than 3,000 messages a month.
  • 15% of teens who are texters send more than 200 texts a day, or more than 6,000 texts a month.
  • Boys typically send and receive 30 texts a day; girls typically send and receive 80 messages per day.
  • Older girls who text are the most active, with 14-17 year-old girls typically sending 100 or more mes­sages a day or more than 3,000 texts a month.
  • While many teens are avid texters, a notable minority are not. One-fifth of teen texters (22%) send and receive just 1-10 texts a day or 30-300 a month.

These results come from a new survey by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project conducted with 800 youth ages 12-17 and their parents between June 26-September 24, 2009. The margin of error on the full sample is four percentage points. The Project teamed with scholars from the University of Michigan to conduct the study and the survey results are buttressed by findings from focus groups from four cities.

“The widespread availability of unlimited texting plans has transformed communication patterns of American teens, many of whom now conduct substantial portions of their daily conversations with their friends via texting,” said Amanda Lenhart, Senior Researcher at the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project and a co-author on the report. “But what’s important to remember here is that this is a shift in the location and style of teens’ communication with friends, not necessarily a radical change or expansion of it.”

The survey found that 75% of those ages 12-17 now have cell phones, up from 45% in 2004. These cell users place calls on their phones much less often than dashing off texts. Teens typically make about five calls per day on the cells. But they still prefer to deal with their parents by calling them, rather than texting them.

The Pew Internet Project report also documents that many teens use their cells for an array of activities beyond texting and talking. Of the 75% of teens who have cell phones:

  • 83% use their phones to take pictures.
  • 64% share pictures with others.
  • 60% play music on their phones.
  • 46% play games on their phones.
  • 32% exchange videos on their phones.
  • 31% exchange instant messages on their phones.
  • 27% go online for general purposes on their phones.
  • 23% access social networking sites on their phones.
  • 21% use email on their phones.
  • 11% purchase things via their phones.

The 27% of cell-using teens who access the internet on their handhelds are particularly interesting because their interest in going online is changing the digital divide:

  • 21% of teens who do not otherwise go online say they access the internet on their cell phone.
  • 41% of teens from households earning less than $30,000 annually say they go online with their cell phone. Only 70% of teens in this income category have a computer in the home, compared with 92% of families from households that earn more.
  • 44% of black teens and 35% of Hispanic teens use their cell phones to go online, compared with 21% of white teens.

“As we’ve seen with adults, cell phones are showing real promise as a way to bridge the digital divide for disadvantaged teens with limited or no other means of internet access,” said Scott Campbell, Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan and a co-author of the report. “This finding embodies a real paradox, as many teens in our focus groups told us that they did not use their cell phones to go online because of the expense, and yet these teens who are often the least able to afford data charges are the ones most likely to use it.”

For families, the cell phone is a mixed blessing, bringing a greater sense of safety and connection to each other but also interruptions, distraction and harassment. Moreover, parents and schools attempt to manage and contain teens’ use of phones, but with limited success.

  • 65% of cell-owning teens at schools that completely ban phones bring their phones to school every day. Yet, 58% of cell-owning teens at schools that ban phones have sent a text message during class. And 43% of all teens who take their phones to school say they text in class at least once a day or more.
  • 64% of parents look at the contents of their child’s cell phone and 62% of parents have taken away their child’s phone as punishment.
  • 52% of parents limit the times of day they may use the phone and 46% limit the number of minutes their children may talk
  • 48% of parents use the phone to monitor their child’s location.

“These findings show that in a very short time cell phones have moved from being a fancy toy in a few teens’ lives to favored communications hubs for most teens that are vitally important to nourishing their ties to friends and coordinating complicated family lives,” said Rich Ling, co-author of the report and a professor at the IT University of Copenhagen and affiliated with the University of Michigan. “The changes in communications patterns are not smooth, though, because teens’ use of cell phones disrupt traditional social relations and social expectations.”

About the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project

The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project is one of seven projects that make up the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan, nonprofit “fact tank” that provides information on the issues, at­titudes and trends shaping America and the world. The Project produces reports exploring the impact of the internet on families, communities, work and home, daily life, education, health care, and civic and political life. The Project aims to be an authoritative source on the evolution of the internet through surveys that examine how Americans use the internet and how their activities affect their lives. The Pew Internet Project takes no positions on policy issues related to the internet or other communications technologies. It does not endorse technologies, industry sectors, companies, nonprofit organizations, or individuals.

About University of Michigan

This project was undertaken in collaboration with researchers in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The project was partially funded by an endowment from alumni Constance F. and Arnold C. Pohs to support research and teaching on the social consequenc­es of information and communication technology. The mission of the University is to serve the people of Michigan and the world through preeminence in creating, communicating, preserving and applying knowledge, art, and academic values, and in developing leaders and citizens who will challenge the pres­ent and enrich the future.