Whether your district allows students to bring mobile phones to school or has a "no cell phone" policy, a major handheld communications revolution is brewing. Thanks to dropping prices and enhanced technology, nearly one-third of American teenagers now carry cell phones, and most can transmit text messages to other phones and exchange e-mail over the Internet.
The text-messaging craze that exploded among young people in Europe and Asia is now spreading like wildfire in the United States, and the number of users is projected to grow from 1.4 million in 2002 to more than 15 million in 2004.
Text messaging, or "texting," is a cross between writing and talking. But since texting is limited to sending short bursts of 140 to 160 characters at a time, a creative language is developing that uses abbreviations, acronyms and symbols to pack as much information as possible into each transmission. For example, "GR8 2 TXT TLK," "ILBL8," and "BRB" mean "Great to text talk," "I'll be late" and "Be right back."
Texting in School
Phone-toting students are now able to exchange real-time messages with others wherever they happen to be, including school. But while a vibrating phone in a student's purse or pocket during class may signal a reminder about a dentist appointment from a parent, it more likely means the start of electronic note passing with friends. As one Lorain County, Ohio, student put it, "Text-messaging doesn't make noise, so you don't get into trouble."
For example, Nicole Ricketts, a student in Connecticut's Tolland High School, has a phone plan that allows her to send 500 text messages each month, so she uses texting throughout the day when calls are inconvenient or too expensive. "If I can't have a 20-minute conversation, I'll just text-message," she says. Such students become amazingly proficient in using phone keypads, and can hold text conversations effortlessly across the room or across the nation. No generation has ever been so available and interconnected, which offers new challenges and opportunities for schools.
Downsides and Upsides
Texting can be a distraction that leads to addiction--a Belgian study found sleep disturbances among half of the teenagers who took phones to bed so they would not miss incoming messages--and educators lament the fact that texting abbreviations are finding their way into student writing. The technology may also be misused to send intimidating messages to bully others and cheat on tests. Some students can type without looking at keyboards, and easily use phones hidden in desks or clothing to solicit help and share answers. Teachers may catch individuals playing with phones during tests and not be aware that cheating is taking place.
Nevertheless, texting has become an important social lifeline for young people, and research suggests that students communicate with others more frequently than ever, and write more than they do in school. Administrators are also using the technology for applications such as contacting individuals on school trips, notifying parents if students are truant, and letting substitute teachers know about openings.
It is important that district acceptable-use policies for electronic resources be extended to the use of cell phones and distinguish between inappropriate and appropriate applications and usage times. For example, rather than attempting to ban texting summarily, social use may be limited to lunch, activity periods and out of class times. But staff members should also explore the benefits to be derived from this technology that instantly links administrators, teachers, and students wherever they may be.
Odvard Egil Dyrli is senior editor and emeritus professor of education at the University of Connecticut.