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Teen Texting and Bad Behavior

Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson


It’s a commonplace notion that what one thinks about tends to come true. Now this pop culture notion has been applied to an analysis of teens’ text messages. The outcome? Teen texts about delinquent actions predict their actual involvement in bad behavior.

Over 6 million text messages sent and received by 172 ninth-grade students in 47 high schools across the country formed the basis of a recent study. Four days of text messages selected at random from each student yielded 76,000 messages for analysis. These messages were then read to measure discussions of buying or using illegal substances, rule-breaking, aggressive behavior, and shoplifting or creating property damage.

Students’ level of anti-social texts was then compared to parents’ and the students’ own rating of their behavior during and after the ninth-grade year.

The researchers found that texting about delinquent actions predicted actual delinquent behavior. Texting often was used to plan and coordinate these activities. In addition, the data suggest that texting about anti-social activities increases the level of a teen’s involvement in these sorts of activities. Texting about delinquent behavior seems to make delinquent behavior more likely and more “normal” to teen texters.

What’s a parent to do? You can’t very well follow your child around, monitoring his texts.

  1. If your child doesn’t have a cell phone, don’t hurry to buy her one. The longer you can delay a child’s cell-phone use, the more time you give her to grow into an understanding of consequences and into stronger emotional control.
  2. Talk with your child about the link between his discussion of bad behavior with his friends and actual commitment of bad behavior. It makes sense to adults that casual talk makes something seem normal or can escalate an offhand comment into aggressive action. Kids are unlikely to see this connection unless it’s pointed out to them.
  3. Do not participate in angry texting yourself. If your child texts you angrily, simply do not respond, or respond by texting, “I can’t talk with you when you’re so angry.” Never send an angry text or make even joking suggestions of the violent response your teen might make in reaction to some injustice.
  4. If your child lands in trouble, consider limiting her cell phone use as part of her plan to make adjustments to her life. Getting back on the straight-and-narrow has to be planned with the child’s collaboration, and kids may think giving up their phones is impossible. But helping a child in trouble realize that her phone may make getting into trouble easier, may give her the strength to self-regulate her cell phone use.

With devices comes responsibility to use devices responsibly. Teens are still learning how to be responsible. It’s important that parents be aware of how teens use texting and understand that irresponsible texting can lead to trouble.



© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.

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Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Dr. Patricia Anderson is a nationally acclaimed educational psychologist and the author of “Parenting: A Field Guide.” Dr. Anderson is on the Early Childhood faculty at Walden University and she is a Contributing Editor for Advantage4Parents.