Walker Essay 2

Text Messaging is Managing Romantic Relationships


Digital technology has revolutionized the ways in which Americans communicate. With the advent of personal computers, the Internet and cell phones, near constant communication is possible. Cell phones in particular allow individuals to be reached at all hours of the day and night because they are viewed as essentially an extension of a person’s physical self and are always close at hand. To facilitate contact when a phone call is inappropriate, text messaging was created, and over roughly the past five years the texting boom has surged. Americans of all ages, but primarily adolescents and young adults, are using text messaging as a means of managing their social relationships by initiating, maintaining and ending affiliations. While text messaging affects all aspects of relationships, it has arguably the greatest impact on Americans’ perception of dating relationships. Compared to previous generations, dating in America today requires significantly more frequent communication than ever before. Varying opinions on the matter suggest that this may help strengthen relationships or conversely cause additional problems due to the invasion of privacy. The surge in text messaging, whether positive or negative, has changed the dynamics of dating relationships from previous generations and added a new component to dating that is virtually inescapable in American society, proving that cell phone technology is managing people’s concept of what constitutes a relationship.

A New Dimension of Dating

In a study by members of the Department of Telecommunications at Indiana University, the authors write that “socially interactive technologies (SITs), such as instant messaging and text messaging, are beginning to redefine the social networks of today's youth” ("IMing, Text Messaging, and Adolescent Social Networks"). Dating relationships are among the social networks most affected by text messaging for many reasons, but most simply because people desire a high level of communication with a romantic interest or significant other, and texting facilitates such frequent contact. Jo Hemmings, a dating and relationship expert, told the Birmingham Evening Mail, “‘A well crafted email or text message can mean just as much as a romantic love letter or poem’” (“Say it with text”).

Frequent texting is almost a requirement for teenagers and young adults in established dating relationships, but it facilitates the early dating stages as well. Mobile service provider AT&T conducted a survey in 2008 of 1,000 adults between the ages of 18 and 55 that use text messaging, and they found that “68% of the respondents to the telecom's survey said they sent a love note via text messaging, and 67% said they used texting to flirt.” One AT&T customer went so far as to say that he believes “it's much easier to flirt via text message than in person because you have a moment to think of a cute, flirty, creative response without being embarrassed about what the other person will think” ("Texting Is For Romantics, AT&T Finds").

In an interview with Rachel East, a senior at Virginia Tech, she said, “Texting has become a separate stage of dating. You can say, ‘We’re texting,’ and that’s understood as a phase of the dating process.” When asked on average how many texts she and her boyfriend exchange a day, she estimated between 40 and 50. “But when we were just getting to know each other and lived in different towns it was probably twice that a day,” she added. While this may seem an excessive number, it might not be too far off the mark. In a New York Times article published on May 25, 2009, author Katie Hafner writes, “American teenagers sent and received an average of 2,272 text messages per month in the fourth quarter of 2008, according to the Nielsen Company — almost 80 messages a day” (“Texting May Be Taking a Toll”). There is no way to determine how many of these daily texts are exchanged between partners in any stage of the dating process, but I believe it is safe to assume that at least some percentage is, if not the majority. These averages will only continue to increase as mobile phone carriers make it cheaper and easier to add unlimited text messaging to phone plans.

Curious to see how my personal texting habits compare to the national average, I counted the total number of texts I exchanged with my boyfriend over the past six days, and the average was between 20 and 30. Kathleen Olson, another senior at Virginia Tech who considers herself to be in the “texting stage” of her current dating relationship, reported that she exchanges the same range of 20 to 30 texts per day. While these averages may not be a statistically accurate representative of young adults nationwide, they do help to provide a basis for determining the role of text messaging in dating relationships.

Although text messaging began as a mere option for communication, it has become in most cases a requirement to stay connected with a dating partner. Now that the ability to communicate multiple times a day through texting is available, it is both expected and necessary to fulfill society’s changing definition of what can be considered dating. In fact, a lapse in texting can have as much or more significance than the presence or content of frequent texts. “Going a whole day without texting your girlfriend sends a very strong message,” said Rachel East, because with communication lines always open, one partner may perceive a prolonged silence as hostility or a lack of interest, and this can cause strain in the relationship. The sheer existence of text messaging technology is managing young adults’ concepts of social relationships and causing them to think about dating relationships in a new way that previous generations never considered.

A Step Backward

In contrast to today’s young adults, their parents’ generation did not have access to constant and immediate forms of communication, so the amount of contact throughout their dating relationships was significantly less. As a point of reference, I interviewed my mother, Cammie Walker, to get an estimate of how often her and my father communicated while they were dating in college. She acknowledged that they saw each other almost every day while at school, but when they traveled home over breaks there was a drastic decrease in contact. “We would talk on the phone maybe twice a week. Not every day. It was a land line and you had to pay for every minute because it was long distance. … We wrote letters about once a week,” she said. My father, Bill Walker, also commented on the amount of time they could spend on the phone with each other when apart. “You couldn’t just talk endlessly. You had to really like a person a whole lot more when you had to pay to talk to them long distance,” he joked. Brief interviews with two other parents of Virginia Tech students (Jennifer East and Debbie Olson) confirmed that when they did not live near their college boyfriends, they also would have short phone conversations a couple times a week and occasionally exchange letters. They went on to comment that this was fairly standard for relationships of their age group at the time. “Now that I look back,” said Cammie, laughing, “your Dad and I lived in the Dark Ages.”

Because of text messaging technology, distance is no longer an impeding factor to communication. It is absurd for many young adults to consider going days without contact from their dating partner. While riding the bus home from campus last week, I watched a girl look at her phone, then complain to her friend, “It’s been over an hour and he still hasn’t texted me back.” It is impossible to know what exactly her situation was, but it is increasingly common to hear such frustrated complaints from young adults when they do not receive instant text responses. The standards for expected levels of communication have skyrocketed in comparison with previous generations due in large part to cell phones and text messaging.

Perhaps one of the most interesting facts about the recent text-messaging boom is that older generations that previously did not have the capability to constantly be in touch with their romantic partner through text messaging, such as my parents’ generation, are beginning to use these mobile phone services – including texting – now that they are available. Increasingly more couples, even those in established marriages, are using cell phones to discover incriminating information rather than just to communicate with each other. “According to a new study of more than 6,000 couples by Oxford University, one if [sic] five of all spouses admit to snooping on their partner's emails and text messages to make sure they are not cheating on them” (“One in five ‘snoops on partner's computer messages’”). Before the rise in digital technology, spouses had to rely on implicit trust in each other since there were not nearly so many ways in which to check up on the other’s behavior. This raises the question, is cell phone technology benefiting individuals by giving them insight into their partner’s behavior that previously was difficult to uncover, or is it damaging the concept of trust?

Mixed Reactions

Individual opinions differ drastically regarding whether the increase in communication due to text messaging technology is beneficial or harmful for dating relationships. Many who believe text messaging helps strengthen relationships feel that it opens the lines of communication, which allows couples to grow and learn about each other in a shorter span of time. “The more open we are with each other and the more we know about each other, the easier it would seem to have a relationship,” said Rachel East. Cammie Walker echoed many of the same thoughts. “You guys can practically follow each other through your days. I think it probably enhances the relationship a lot. You know far more detail about the person’s lifestyle because you get to communicate as often as you want,” she said. “It might actually advance the relationship because you’re able to learn so much about the person in a short amount of time.”

Not everyone is so pleased with the effects of text messaging technology on dating relationships, however. “It’s definitely changing the dynamic of relationships, but not in a good way because relationships are more stable when you see each other instead of relying on texting,” said Jessica Gallegos, a senior at Virginia Tech. Many people would agree with this sentiment; however, all of the couples I interviewed said they try to spend as much physical time together as possible and they text as a way to keep in touch in between face-to-face encounters. This leads me to believe that text messaging isn’t lessening people’s desire to spend time with their significant other or replacing in-person contact; it may actually lead to more time spent together because texting makes it so easy to make spur-of-the-moment plans.

Jessica’s boyfriend of over three years, Matt Gagnon (a fifth-year senior also at Tech), responded similarly in a separate interview. “Texting allows you to constantly communicate, so they expect to know where you are at all times,” he said. When I asked if that is a good or bad thing for a relationship, he promptly answered, “A bad thing.” While this may be a “bad thing” for some individuals, others are comforted to know what their partner is doing at a given time. The amount of information a person feels comfortable sharing about their daily activities is likely based more on personality characteristics than on technology’s advanced capabilities.

An impeding factor to dating that may become a significant issue is which communication platform each partner prefers or is comfortable using. Monica Hesse of The Washington Post explains that, “Today, you can be a phone person, an e-mail person, a text person, a Skype person, a Facebook wall person, a Twitter person, an instant-messaging person. … Each form of communication has its own followers and rules, which means dating today is a law of inverse proportions: As ways to communicate increase, the chances you will date someone who speaks your technological language decrease” ("Getting Their (Wireless) Lines Crossed"). This may not seem like such an issue to teenagers and young adults who are fluent in all of these formats and seem to have no trouble instantly mastering whatever new gadgets emerge. However, many people past their 20s are often more selective about which communication devices they wish to use, and these preferences may clash with a potential dating partner. Ultimately, though, a person’s preference for a particular mode of contact may have a lot to do with their personality (extroverts are probably more likely to exchange brief and frequent texts, while introverts may prefer slower means of communication so they have time and space to develop their message) so a conflict of technology may be an underlying indication that a relationship isn’t meant to be. Hesse points out that, “As with almost anything else that causes discord in relationships, technological incompatibility is a sign, not a problem.”

On a darker note, Seleema Noon, a sexual health educator in Vancouver, reported in The Globe and Mail that text messaging and other digital forms of communication have “‘allowed teenage relationships to progress much faster than they used to and to become way more co-dependent and potentially unhealthy than they used to because of that lack of space’” (“Mixed Message”). It is unclear if this is a trend that affects adults in relationships as well as teenagers, but it is very likely that the exponential increase in communication due to technology fosters amplified co-dependence in all ages. As a psychology minor, I have studied the effects of excessive co-dependence on another person, which frequently causes individuals to feel intense anxiety, stress and illogical jealously if they perceive the relationship to be remotely threatened.

Another potential downside to communicating so often through texts is the heightened possibility of misinterpreting messages. Unlike face-to-face contact, phone calls or even video messaging over the Internet, there is no way to convey tone or subtle meanings through written text. According to Toby Green of the Sunday Tasmanian newspaper in Australia, “Text-based communication has a greater potential for misunderstandings to arise. It lacks the cues of body language and voice. And the person may have compensating qualities you'll miss because they're behind a screen” (“Textual Intercourse”). This may cause increased conflict between couples over simple misunderstandings as opposed to true disagreements or differences of opinion.

The Verdict

These views are not meant to be representative of opinions of Americans nationwide, but they do present many attitudes of those who are affected by the changes in dating culture due to texting. According to Candice Hopkins, director of the Austin, Tex.-based loveisrespect, National Teen Dating Abuse Hotline, “‘Cellphones and the instant messenger platform are new technologies, in regards to what they mean in relationships. That constant communication is something new’” (“Mixed Message”). Because the technology is so new, there are no research-based studies that have definitively established if text messaging is damaging or enhancing relationships, so most verdicts are based more on individual opinion and experience than pure fact. I personally am still struggling with my own view on the matter. My boyfriend of nearly two years and I text on a daily basis, and I truly believe it helps us stay better connected, both for practical purposes (such as scheduling time to spend together) and to strengthen our emotional bond. I agree with Alecia Bridgwater, AT&T's director of messaging for their wireless unit, who is quoted in TECHWEB saying, “There are moments when just the right text, sent at just the right time, can go a long way to keeping romance alive” ("Texting Is For Romantics, AT&T Finds").

However, I recognize that the constant ability to communicate can be a source of anxiety, addiction and confusion when texts are misunderstood or not received in a timely manner. I think the best way for users of text messaging technology to receive all of the benefits and not fall victim to the unhealthy, negative consequences is to simply be aware of the potential impediments that texting can create. Texting is meant to enhance a physical relationship, not to replace it.

There may never be a consensus on whether the advancement of text messaging technology is a positive or negative development for current dating relationships, but it is clearly changing the ways in which young adults manage their relationships.

Texting as Knowledge Management

It is clear that text messaging has significantly increased the quantity of communication and changed the standards of dating, but it manages knowledge and behavior in other ways as well. The limited space available in which to type a text message restricts how many characters an individual can use when trying to convey a thought. Messages must be fairly short and to the point in order to fit into the designated space. For this reason, as well as for mere convenience, users often abbreviate words, causing the message to look more like a complex code than the English language. Other users, whether they use this hyphenated form of communication or not, must have inside knowledge of what these shortened words mean or risk not understanding the message. Mobile phone carriers (such as Verizon and AT&T) are also managers of knowledge in that they have digital records of all text messages sent and received between phones that use their service. Technology limits the amount of truly private communication that used to exist between dating partners.

The manner in which relationships are established has also changed with increasingly various types of communication. An article in Newsweek informed readers that many college students begin dating relationships through “an e-mail exchange, a conversation on IM, maybe even a flirtatious text message. But there are at least three methods of communicating that are likely to come before an actual verbal conversation.” According to Julie Albright, a sociologist at the University of Southern California, “these are natural stages of relationship progression that have just become a ubiquitous part of college culture now” (“Status Update: Broken Heart; How the digital world is changing the rules of campus courtship”). Our interactions with others, especially those with whom we are or hope to be romantically involved, are becoming more and more managed by digital technology.

For better or for worse, texting is here to stay, and the vast number of texts sent and received by romantic partners in America each day is an indication that we don’t want it any other way. Today’s definition of dating requires a substantially greater amount of communication, regardless of physical distance, and that is unlikely to change in the near future as American consumers push for technology to become increasingly more advanced and personal. In a comical and yet true statement, Matt Daniel, a junior at Virginia Tech, said, “There’s no escaping the significant other. They can always find you.”

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