Saturday, June 15, 2013

Teens, Texts, and the Marshmallow Test


I’ve blogged before about the nexus of parenting, dopamine, and social media, but have come to realize the problem is worse than I originally thought.  In this post I look at how social media and the popularity of cell phone text messaging are reshaping not just our behavior but aspects of our psychology.  In particular I’ll examine how the influence of electronic socializing may be significantly undermining the prospects of the next crop of adults.

Evolution of phone use

In the beginning we just had phones, one per household.  You reached your friend if a) he was home, and b) nobody else was using the phone.  So often the phone just rang and rang, or you dictated a message to your friend’s little brother, who most likely only pretended to take it down.  There was no expectation of recourse if your phone call didn’t reach its target.

Then we got call waiting  and the answering machine, which meant that if your friend’s little brother didn’t simply ignore your waiting call, or somebody didn’t accidentally delete your voice-mail, you had a pretty good chance of getting a call back sooner or later.

And then we got the cell phone.  For the first time in history our friends could expect to reach us at any time.  The phone wasn’t a household device anymore, but a personal device, so we could now hold our friends directly accountable for not answering or returning our call.  Sure, this device brought us freedom—from having to be organized, from waiting around at home for a call—but it also brought the shackles of greater accountability.

Finally, we have reached a saturation point with modern cell phones and smartphones:  our friends can now expect a response even when we don’t have time to talk.  Text messaging is tremendously handy for the person initiating the dialog, but can create a social burden for us when we receive a text.  Why?  Because somehow our ever-connected society has evolved to expect an immediate response whenever we send a text message.  The personal cell phone has become like the red phone in the White House.

Is this even true?

Okay, that’s a pretty strong generalization I’ve just made, and you’re right to question on what basis I made it. 

First, I have my own experience:  over the years I’ve received an increasing number of text messages even though I almost never respond.  I’ve had to train friends and colleagues not to rely on this mode of communication, by telling them flat out, “I never look at texts.”  They have come to accept this idiosyncrasy, much as you’d accept a friend being lactose-intolerant.

Meanwhile, we’ve all seen people, particularly teens but adults too, pausing in the middle of a face-to-face conversation to answer their cell phone or return a text.  Sometimes while texting they’ll pretend to still be listening to you while clearly losing the thread of what you’re saying.  This phenomenon has made it into a “New Yorker” cartoon, and my kids’ babysitter even committed this rudeness, seeming to forget I was her employer.

Of course such anecdotal evidence isn’t enough, so I turn to the testimony of a thought leader in this space, the YouTube artist sWooZie, who has created a video called “Textually Active” (subtitled “The art of text messaging and how people mess it up!”).  In this video, sWooZie codifies the impatience I’ve been talking about:  “You know what’s annoying?  People who take hours to text back, especially when they hit me up in the first place…  If you get busy, just say ‘In class - brb,’ or ‘@ work - brb.’”  (Thankfully, he doesn’t include “Driving – brb,” though many teens cite “not wanting to be rude” as their rationale for texting while driving, as described here and here.)

More insight from sWooZie

Poor response time isn’t the only issue sWooZie tackles; he also airs his grievance with replies that are too brief:  “The letter ‘K’ is only acceptable when somebody is stating a fact or looking for confirmation.  For example, ‘Hey, I’m in your driveway, let’s go,’ or ‘Hey, I’m on my way...’  If you text me the letter ‘K’ for any other reason, don’t be looking all confused when I show up in my Goku outfit ‘bout to bust a Kamehameha up in your grille!” 

But sWooZie’s greatest gripe is with people who don’t respond at all to a text: 
And then there’s those times when you’re sitting at home relaxing, checking your Facebook, and you see your friend update their status, like, “Ohh my gawwww!  Powerpuff Girls marathon on Cartoon Network!”  And instead of commenting on their wall you text them, because you’ve got special friend privileges, unlike their other 90 billion Facebook friends, and like two hours go by, and you ain’t heard jack, and you start thinking:  You know what?  I don’t even like stupid Powerpuff Girls!  Why’d I text them in the first place?  I seen you update your Instagram like two minutes ago.  Oh, you’re just gonna totally ignore me, like I don’t even exist.  Now I’m in a bad mood when I go to watch “Glee.”  My night is ruined.
Significantly, the ignored message that we see sWooZie send his Facebook friend is of a trivial nature:  “Lol. saw ur fb post. Bubbles FTW!!”  The content of this message isn’t important; what matters to sWooZie is what the exchange (or rather the lack of exchange) says about his social currency.  Each text he sends is a social overture, and each lack of response becomes, for him, a litmus test of his social standing.

Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against sWooZie.  Actually, “Textually Active” is a funny, clever movie, so much so that I almost wonder if sWooZie is doing something sly with it—a satire, perhaps, of the insecurity bred into us by this texting, social-media-obsessed culture.  Even if it is, the viewer response seems sincere and earnest.  To date, the video has received over 7 million hits, with over 100,000 positive comments and fewer than 2,000 negative ones.  A lot of viewers commiserate with him:  “SO TRUE MAN,” “We all been there,” “I know how you feel this happens to me and it SUCKS.”

One viewer comment on sWooZie’s video presents a compelling counterpoint:  “My texting peeve is when people over-exaggerate the emotional worth of a text and get all pissy when I don’t text even though I tell everyone that I don’t like texting especially when I am playing a videogame.”  This is a tricky matter, though, isn’t it?  Who is the ultimate arbiter of the emotional worth of a text?  And how is sWooZie supposed to know when his pal is playing a video game?  (Oh, right … Twitter.)

Texts as tokens

Ultimately, messages of 140 characters or less—unless written by a master poet—aren’t all that eloquent, and the rapid-fire, ultra-casual nature of the medium isn’t normally associated with deathless prose.  I’m no Facebook expert, but I gather it’s a pretty informal medium as well, with most of the value coming from immediacy, not eloquence.  All this social commerce, then, seems to emphasize the act of texting—the gesture of the text—above the content.  In other words, each text is more like a token, like social currency, than it is a real communication between two people.

A friend of mine had a reunion recently with a bunch of high school friends.  They all went out to dinner, and several of them were texting and tweeting and Instagramming throughout the evening.  Two of them posted the same photo of their dessert to their Facebook pages, and then one got all sore because her friend’s photo got more “likes.”  Later, the friend with the higher number of likes started to freak out because her cell phone battery was dying.  She eventually talked a bartender into charging it for her.  And for what?  Wasn’t the point of the evening the old friends who were right in front of her?  All these likes and texts strike me as the social equivalent of a morphine drip:  continual social affirmation, little bursts of dopamine, that become practically addictive.  The smartphone, though cordless, is like an umbilical cord.  Even when you’re in the presence of friends, the phone is a hedge against loneliness and obscurity.

And thus, modern socializing of the electronic sort becomes a matter of quantity over quality, with an emphasis on immediacy and ease.  People used to write letters, which were a lot of work, and which didn’t get a very quick reply, but these were deeper communications, and documents you might feel like keeping.  Now we have texts and tweets that are dashed off quickly, read in seconds, and then forgotten.  They’re the social equivalent of fast food:  no waiting, little cost, but not particularly nourishing.

So what?

By now you’re tired of this, and I realize I sound like a scold, and anyway what’s wrong with being impatient socially when our social media and texting technologies do seem to give us what we want?  Isn’t a wide network with casual shout-outs better than moldering away by ourselves somewhere, reading a fusty old novel, or knitting, or (gasp!) blogging?

The answer is, this widespread social impatience starts to look like a real problem when considered from a certain perspective.  I’m thinking of a psychological test performed over several years at a nursery preschool on the campus of Stanford University in the late 1960s, and described in detail in a “New Yorker” article from 2009.  As you shall see, this study considered a link between behavior and character that psychologists might do well to revisit with electronic socializing in mind.

Here’s how the test went:  a researcher would sit a child down in a chair and offer him a marshmallow, and a proposal:  if the child could sit in front of that marshmallow without eating it while the researcher left for a few minutes, the child could have two marshmallows upon the researcher’s return.  The goal of the experiment, initially, was to observe (via hidden camera) the mental processes that enabled some children to delay gratification, while others gave in and scarfed down the single marshmallow right away.

The real discovery of the experiment came when the man running the experiment, Walter Mischel, revisited his test results many years later, and compared them to more recent information about the subjects.  He “sent out a questionnaire to all the reachable parents, teachers, and academic advisers of the six hundred and fifty-three subjects who had participated in the marshmallow task, who were by then in high school.  He asked about every trait he could think of, from their capacity to plan and think ahead to their ability to ‘cope well with problems’ and get along with their peers.  He also requested their S.A.T. scores.”  

On the basis of the responses he discovered that those who as children failed to hold out for the second marshmallow—“low delayers,” he called them—were “more likely to have behavioral problems, both in school and at home.  They got lower S.A.T. scores.  They struggled in stressful situations, often had trouble paying attention, and found it difficult to maintain friendships.  The child who could wait fifteen minutes had an S.A.T. score that was, on average, two hundred and ten points higher than that of the kid who could wait only thirty seconds.”


According to a CTIA Wireless Association website, today’s average teen sends 60 text messages a day; the average teen girl sends 100 text messages a day.  Research reported here states that the average smartphone user checks his phone every six minutes, or about 150 times a day.  This compulsion, needless to say, is a learned behavior; after all, a generation ago there was no texting, and smartphones didn’t exist.  Modern technology is shaping our behavior.

Similarly, the behavior of the marshmallow test subjects was shaped by their circumstances.  For example, “when Mischel gave delay-of-gratification tasks to children from low-income families in the Bronx, he noticed that their ability to delay was below average, at least compared with that of children in Palo Alto.  ‘When you grow up poor, you might not practice delay as much,’ he says.  ‘And if you don’t practice then you’ll never figure out how to distract yourself.  You won’t develop the best delay strategies, and those strategies won’t become second nature.’”  Sure enough, he and his researchers were able to teach these strategies to children and greatly increase their marshmallow delay time.  In other words, children can be taught patience.


Of course teaching children patience isn’t a new concept, but why should we even bother if we then give them smartphones and social media access that seem to be systematically teaching them impatience?  How can we expect teenagers to sit down and focus on their homework, their piano practice, or even their daydreams if they’re stopping every five minutes to check their smartphone or send a text?

For a lot of parents, it’s probably too late to intervene.  Trying to take away a teenager’s smartphone and Facebook would work about as well as Prohibition did in the 1920s.  But parents with younger children and preteens can take important steps now to prevent them from one day becoming slaves to their smartphones.

A few recommendations

For one thing, we can set the right example.  All the lecturing in the world won’t help if you’re tuning out your kid every five minutes to fire off a text of your own.  (And no, engaging in such behaviors doesn’t make you seem young and hip.  Your kids still think you’re a dork, and they’re right.)  I don’t text, and I don’t automatically put face-to-face interactions on hold just because my phone tells me to.

If I’m trying to write, I will tell my kids to leave me alone so I can concentrate.  (In a bit of wonderful irony, the writer Maxine Hong Kingston—from whom I once took a writing class—has admitted to once giving her young child a whole bag of marshmallows just to keep him out of her hair so she could write.)  Do my daughters follow my example?  Well, they aren’t begging for cell phones, and they love to write too.

Another thing we parents can do is to work extra hard on teaching our kids patience now, to try to ingrain it in them.  I’ve done this all my kids’ lives simply because a) kids are whiners, b) whining can be terribly effective, and c) I’ve always sought to keep the balance of power in my favor.  Years before reading about the marshmallow test, I accidentally developed a version of it myself.  At potlucks and barbecues, my wife and I set limits on how many desserts the kids can have:  they’re allowed one small and one full-sized treat.  (I know, this is probably too much.  I’m weak.)  Well, early on one of my kids had already selected her two treats when something even better came along, brought by a potluck latecomer.  On this basis she asked if she could please, please, please have a third treat.  DENIED!  I let her cry for awhile before taking the lesser dessert off her hands so she could get the good stuff.  (As an adult, and a scrawny one at that, I have no dessert limit.)

At the same time, I set an important new rule:  going forward, the kids had better wait awhile before making their selections, because when something better comes along there’ll never again be a Dad-fostered substitution.  This rule puts a special strain on my daughters’ delay capability, because there’s no guarantee of a better dessert later, nor that the current front-runner will still be available.  But my kids tolerate this policy, because they have no other choice.  And it’s remarkable how long they’ll wait around for a better dessert to show up.

My third recommendation for avoiding the crevasse of electronic socializing is both the easiest and the hardest:  don’t let your teens have cell phones or social media accounts.  The hard part here will be convincing yourself and your spouse that this is a reasonable policy.  My earlier post on this topic makes a case for this, so I won’t repeat myself, but I’ll add that the Ph.D. child psychologist whose lecture inspired that post doesn’t let her kids have cell phones or Facebook either, and I’m sure more authorities will come out against such enslavement as time goes on.

I don’t kid myself that this policy will go down easy with my daughters.  Sure, I’ll discuss it with them, but they won’t have an easy time persuading me.  The most predictable argument—“All my friends have them!”—will get them nowhere.  After all, the CTIA says that only 77% of teens 12-17 have cell phones.  That leaves 23% who don’t, which is a very spacious minority for my kids to occupy.  After all, our household doesn’t even have cable TV.

Just the other day my older daughter asked when she’ll get a cell phone.  (“I’m just curious,” she added diplomatically.)  I replied, “How about never?”  (Obviously “never” isn’t a straight answer; of course she’ll have a cell phone as an adult.  Maybe even sooner, if society evolves beyond its current phone-induced OCD.)   I challenged my daughter to make a case for a cell phone.

“Well, it could lead to greater freedom,” she said.  “I could go to more places by myself, and you and Mom wouldn’t have to worry.”  I told her that our merely knowing where she is won’t keep her out of trouble, and added, “Besides, if your parents can reach you whenever they want, that’s not really freedom at all.  Freedom is having enough trust that we don’t need to know where you are.”  The conversation continued for a good while, and I was pleased to see my daughter making good points and not just gagging on my Kool-Aid.  And the best part?  We had each other’s complete attention.  Nobody was dinking around with a phone.

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