Texting Is Familial Glue For The 21st Century

Editor’s note: Nic Denholm is a content consultant for SMS marketing platform FireText.

Communication is one of the bedrocks of human civilization. The tools we use – voice and face muscles, smoke signals, quills and ink, emojis – start out as delivery systems for existing ideas. Without exception, those tools end up influencing the ideas themselves. For proof, look no further than the impact of technology on the nuclear family over the past hundred years.

Recent research from the University of Kansas looks at the way technological advancements influence interpersonal communication, with a focus on familial relationships. The study tested whether the number of media used by families to interact with each other altered the way they related.

Researchers asked 367 adults between the ages of 18 and 29 about the types of communication they used to stay in touch with their parents, how regularly they communicated, and how satisfied they were with the relationship.

The young adults reported using a wide range of communication tools to stay in touch with mom and dad. Alongside the landlines and cell phone calls, a surprisingly diverse array of methods are used for intergenerational communication, including Snapchat, online gaming networks, video calls, instant messaging – and of course texting. On average, participants used one of three methods of communication when talking to parents.

Researchers found a positive change in relationship satisfaction as more forms of communication were used. Youngsters only using one method of communication – irrespective of what that method was – were found to experience less relationship satisfaction than their peers who used three or four methods.

This makes perfect sense. We’re all multi-taskers now. At any one time we have a couple of email accounts open on our desktop browser, ready to pounce on whatever work-related issue or social tidbit comes our way. That same browser is probably creaking under the weight of countless cats, lists and celebrity trivia masquerading as news. There may even be some bona fide news buried on the 17th tab.

At least these media can be consumed passively. Things start getting hectic when you consider all the two-way communication systems we’re negotiating.

You’re logged into Skype so your dad can call and your sister’s pinging you on Facebook. Your niece has set you up with WhatsApp because that’s what she uses (but you don’t quite get it as much as you pretend to). Add to that the constant barrage of retail bargain alerts sending your smartphone into a vibrant spin and the fact you occasionally get an actual telephone call, not to mention texting and… blimey, a postcard just floated onto the mat. Fancy that.

With our attentions spread so thin, it behooves families to be available on as many devices as possible. But the default channel for cross-generational contact is SMS, and the influence it’s had on the tenor of our conversations is obvious. Less formal than other written forms, texting is closer in tone to spoken language. It’s relaxed, telegraphic; less reflective than a letter, perhaps, but more accessible.

Linguist John McWhorter coined the phrase ‘fingered speech’ in a 2013 TED talk, citing the example of “LOL” which no longer functions as a direct acronym for “laugh out loud” but a “pragmatic particle” – an expression not semantically linked to the context of the message, but rather an indicator of the speaker’s attitude. Like averting your eyes from a Silverback’s gaze, it sends the message that you mean no harm. You’re a friend.

Despite the naysayers who view every SMS ping as a miniature death knell for language, this is clearly a form of progress. Before text messaging – and its errant offspring, the tweet – written language could only avoid being misconstrued by becoming denser and more complex. The acronyms, idioms and emoticons of text speak have reversed that trend, and though it may not suit grammar cops and syntax pedants, brevity and clarity are far more critical for effective communication than a blind adherence to “proper” form.

If smiley faces and acronyms are helping modern families stay in touch when they’re miles apart, who is anyone to argue? Using new technologies to communicate with the coop-flown may take some work for the more technophobic parent, but as the KU research shows, it’s well worth the effort.