Someone give Samuel Ehrenreich a medal. On second thought, buy the man a beer, which the UT Dallas researcher desperately needs after spending a year collecting, then wading through, some 6 million text messages sent and received by high school freshman. All in the name of science.
"We were interested in how adolescents use electronic communication, particularly text messaging," Ehrenreich told UTD's news center. "We examined how discussing antisocial behavior -- substance abuse, property crimes, physical aggression, that sort of thing -- how discussing that predicts actually engaging in this problem behavior. Basically, does talking about bad behavior predict bad behavior?"
To measure that, they handed free Blackberrys (the research was partially funded in partnership with Research in Motion) with unlimited texting to 172 ninth graders throughout the country on the condition that the teens would allow Ehrenreich and his team to collect and read every one.
Most of the texts were innocuous, but somewhere around 2 percent involved discussion of the behavior researchers defined as "antisocial." What they found was that the teens who sent those texts were more likely to break the rules.
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Not that this is a phenomenon of the digital age. Even before cell phones gave researchers the ability to unobtrusively eavesdrop on teenagers' conversations, the kids who talked about smoking pot were more likely to go smoke pot, just to give a for-instance. The immediacy and ubiquity of text messaging simply makes those discussions easier to have and harder to overhear.
"Text messaging appeals to adolescents because they are able to discuss deviant topics in plain sight without adult supervision, and evade normal efforts to be monitored," as Ehrenreich told the science website Red Orbit.. "SMS communication is a meaningful avenue for deviant peer affiliation."
Troubling, but there's a near-at-hand solution that Ehrenreich refers to as "increased parental monitoring" but which those a bit closer to their teenage years might refer to as "spying." Technology has made that easier, too, especially if Ehrenreich decides to start marketing those text message-recording Blackberrys.