Excessive texting linked to emotional problems in students

New research finds college freshmen experience more "interpersonal stress" if they're overly reliant on their phone

Published September 21, 2013 2:30PM (EDT)

This piece originally appeared on Pacific Standard.

Pacific Standard Here’s a cautionary note for students who find adjustment to college life particularly stressful: Your phone may not be your friend.

A new study suggests university freshmen are more vulnerable to a variety of emotional problems if they (a) find themselves in difficult personal relationships, and (b) text more frequently than the average student.

“Interpersonal stress was associated with poorer functioning only at higher levels of texting,” writes psychologist Karla Klein Murdock of Washington and Lee University. Her study is published the journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture.

Murdock’s study featured 83 freshmen (56 women and 27 men) enrolled at an academically rigorous liberal arts college in the southeastern U.S. They responded to a series of questions designed to measure their emotional well-being, sleep problems, and “academic and social burnout.”

The latter problems were indicated by responses to such statements as “Managing all of my academic work is really a strain for me,” and “I feel emotionally drained from the social pressures at college.”

The students were also asked to think about everyone in their social network, including parents, siblings, and friends, and respond to such statements as, “There is someone I care about that expects more of me than I can manage.”

Finally, they reported how many text messages they send and receive on an average day.

One striking result: “A higher number of daily texts was associated with more sleep problems.” Murdock believes this reflects the social pressure to respond to text messages day or night, and the tendency of many students to sleep within arm’s reach of their phone.

Frequent texters who were dealing with problematic relationships and other stressors were more likely than infrequent texters to report symptoms suggesting emotional burnout. They also reported lower levels of emotional well-being.

This suggests “heavy text messaging could be problematic during times of stress,” writes Murdock, who goes on to offer some possible reasons why.

“Although speculative,” she writes, “it could be argued that text messaging is a uniquely unsuitable mode of communication for coping with interpersonal stress in close relationships. The use of ‘textese,’ the abbreviated vocabulary often used in text messages, may not effectively capture nuances that would facilitate successful communication about sensitive topics. Also, text messages lack nonverbal cues, which carry crucial information in face-to-face communication.”

Given those factors, plus the wrong assumptions one can draw when a text isn’t immediately answered, “text messaging may carry a high risk of producing or maintaining misunderstandings and/or unproductive interactions during periods of stress,” she writes.

This analysis suggests the implications of the study go far beyond college freshmen. If you’re dealing with stressful personal situations, texting—however convenient it may be, and however used to it you are—is not an effective means of communication.

By Tom Jacobs

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