How compulsive texting affects teens at school

Compulsive texting is more likely to have a negative academic impact on teen girls than boys, researchers say.

Tom Wang

Last Updated Oct 5, 2015 5:15 PM EDT

It's no secret that teens love texting. Surveys show it has become their preferred form of communication, with adolescents sending and receiving an average of 167 texts per day.

Most of the discussions surrounding texting and teens have focused on the effect texting has on social skills and face-to-face social interactions, as well as it being a dangerous distraction while driving. But a new study suggests that when texting becomes a compulsive habit, it can harm teens academically. This association, however, was only seen in girls.

"It appears that it is the compulsive nature of texting, rather than sheer frequency, that is problematic," lead researcher Kelly M. Lister-Landman, PhD, of Delaware County Community College, said in a statement. "Compulsive texting is more complex than frequency of texting. It involves trying and failing to cut back on texting, becoming defensive when challenged about the behavior, and feeling frustrated when one can't do it."

Lister-Landman and her colleagues surveyed 403 students in grades eight and 11 in a semirural town in the Midwest. The researchers designed a scale measuring compulsive texting by asking students questions like: "How often do you find that you text longer than you intended?" "How often do you check your texts before doing something else that you need to do?" "How often do you try to cut down the amount of time you spend texting and fail?" and "How often do you find yourself frustrated because you want to text but you have to wait?"

The students also answered questions about the number of texts they send per day, their grades and their attitudes toward school.

The results of the study, published by the American Psychological Association, showed that girls do not text more frequently than boys, but they are more likely to be negatively affected academically by compulsive texting behaviors.

The reason, Lister-Landman suggests, may lie in gender differences regarding why teens text. Previous research shows that teen boys use digital technology to convey information, while girls use it for social interaction and to nurture relationships.

"Girls in this developmental stage also are more likely than boys to ruminate with others, or engage in obsessive, preoccupied thinking, across contexts," Lister-Landman said. "Therefore, it may be that the nature of the texts girls send and receive is more distracting, thus interfering with their academic adjustment."

The authors note that the study was limited to a relatively small sample and more research is needed to see if the results apply to other student populations. Lister-Landman said future studies should entail observing students while texting, scrutinizing monthly phone bills and interviewing parents, as well as focusing on their motivations for texting and the impact of multitasking on academic performance.

Lister-Landman said there are steps parents can take if they believe compulsive texting is negatively affecting their teens.

"We recommend that parents encourage open lines of communication with their teens about texting behaviors and ask general questions to understand their teens' frequency of use and any indicators of compulsive use," she told CBS News. "It would be helpful for parents to look for signs of whether texting seems stressful for their teens, particularly if they have difficulty cutting back their texting or seem anxious when they are unable to text."

If children report stress, or if texting seems to be interfering with their daily lives, parents should intervene. "For instance, it may be helpful for parents to establish 'screen free' time periods or zones in the home, such as at the dinner table or during homework," Lister-Landman said. "Teens regularly multi-task, and establishing boundaries to cut down on the teens' divided attention could prove beneficial.

"Additionally, parents should look for signs of texting interfering with their teens' sleep and intervene as necessary, as delaying sleep or losing sleep due to texting can negatively impact academic performance and attention during the school day."

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