Text-dominant Relationships: A Social Norm that is Killing Meaningful Teen Relationships

By Amanda Kimball

Recently, professor Julie Dobrow, Ph.D., asked her students at Tufts University to take on a fascinating challenge: for one day, instead of texting family, friends, and classmates, they called them on the phone. If the calling recipient picked up his or her phone, students would simply convey in conversation what they would have by text; if the recipient didn’t pick up, students left a voice message (Dobrow, 2016).

Many students “reported that their friends’ responses ranged from, ”Is something wrong?’ to ‘I can’t believe you’re actually calling me to ask if we can meet up later!’ to ‘How quaint — you left me a voicemail!’ The latter, of course, was a texted response” (Dobrow, 2016).

When the students called their parents instead of texting, their parents were happy to be able to talk to their kids. “Though one student said her mother’s first response to a voicemail she’d left just to say hi was, ‘What’s the matter? Why didn’t you text?’” (Dobrow, 2016). It seems that if people call and talk to each other, then there must be something wrong.

This challenge got me thinking… What kind of relationship is being built when it is heavily based on texting? Can we build a loving relationship? Can we build a strong friendship?

Relationships for teenagers, in both friendship and with a love interest, have become heavily text-based. Talking face to face is becoming more uncommon, and because of this, our kids are losing necessary components and triggers for empathy and emotional connection (Colier, 2017).

Relationships based on texting are missing three important elements that are needed to form a relation, “specifically, the sight of someone’s face, the sound of someone’s voice, and the language of someone’s body. Without these three elements, it’s extremely difficult to develop or maintain a sense of empathy for another person. Texting relationships, if they are not supplemented with real-time together, face-to-face, eventually can and do lose a sense of empathy and even reality. The texting teenager shifts from being in a relationship with another person to being in a relationship with just themselves. Without visual, auditory, and sensorial cues, the relationship becomes one with their own words and the screen on which they appear” (Colier, 2017). This is something we want our kids to avoid. We want them to have happy and healthy relationships.

For teenagers, depression and mental health issues are on the rise. “Between 2010 and 2016, the number of adolescents who experienced at least one major depressive episode leapt by 60%”, according to a nationwide survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The 2016 survey of 17,000 kids found that about 13% of them had a major depressive episode, compared to 8% of the kids surveyed in 2010” (Heid, 2017).

“Parents, teens, and researchers agree smartphones are having a profound impact on the way adolescents today communicate with one another and spend their free time” (Heid, 2017). 

What Parents Can Do?

Talk to your kids face to face every day

Having open and honest communication with your kids about their texting habits can allow them to open up about their relationships. Let them know it is important to talk face-to-face with the people with whom they are in a relationship. Talking face-to-face creates a deeper sense of connection, and they can learn new things about their friends or partners when they talk instead of text.

Get to know their friends and boyfriend/girlfriend.

Talk face-to-face with their friends and boyfriend/girlfriend. You might embarrass your kids, but knowing who their friends are and who their boyfriend/girlfriend is important. Try to maintain on open, honest, and unjudging relationship with them.

Monitor their usage. “Read texts occasionally for appropriateness. Although teens need a sense of independence and privacy, parents are ultimately responsible for their well-being. Keep a close eye on the usage with your cell phone bill. As with any issue concerning teenagers, it’s important to:”

  • Stay involved in their lives.
  • Let them know you care and have their best interests at heart.
  • Avoiding being a ‘helicopter parent’” (Anderson, n.d.).

If monitoring the phones goes unchecked, it can become easy for kids to be involved with sexting and sending pictures that could be interpreted as child porn. Being in possession of child porn is never a good thing, and minors are not exempt from the law.

Set limits. “Appropriate boundaries need to be set, such as no texting during class hours.  As well, set limits at home. Your family may decide to set rules such as no texting allowed during meal times, family gatherings, religious events, or after certain hours. And, of course, teens should be instructed not to text at all while driving. NOTE:  Many cell phone carriers have the capability to restrict texting during certain hours” (Anderson, n.d.). Set consequences for breaking the rules and make sure they see you following the rules yourself.

Your kids will follow your example far more than any rules you set or words you speak.

As a family, try to follow Dr. Dobrow’s example. Challenge each other to call instead of text. Let your kids see you are willing to take on the challenge with them. Try it for a day or see how long your family can go without texting. After the challenge is complete, don’t forget to talk to each other and find out what they thought about it. A deeper sense of empathy and emotional connection can only be nurtured face to face and are needed to build strong and loving relationships.

For more ideas on how to strengthen our children, check out 30 Days to a Stronger Child. This book is full of discussions and activities to help your kids become strong and stay strong in the world in which they are growing up. 

For younger kids, check out Noah’s New Phone: A Story About Using Technology for Good. With an engaging story and wonderful discussion questions, it will help prepare your child to have a smartphone.

Amanda will be earning her bachelor’s degree in Marriage and Family Studies this winter. She is a mother of three children and is married to a loving and devoted husband of 11 years. She loves taking family trips to the beach in the summer and watching old classic movies during the winter.


Anderson, K., RN, BSN, RNIII. (n.d.). Teens and texting: Setting Boundaries. Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. Retrieved from https://www.chla.org/blog/rn-remedies/teens-texting-setting-boundaries

Anderson, K., RN, BSN, RNIII. (n.d.). Teens and texting: What Parents Need to Know. Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. Retrieved from https://www.chla.org/blog/rn-remedies/teens-texting-what-parents-need-know

Colier, N., LCSW, REV. (2017). Teens and Texting: A Recipe for Disaster.

Psychology Today. Retrieved from  https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/inviting-monkey-tea/201708/teens-and-texting-recipe-disaster

Dobrow, J. (2016). Here’s what happened when I asked my students to call instead of text. Huffpost. Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/is-something-wrong-textin_b_8260736

EducateEmpowerKids.org (n.d.). Social media and teens: The ultimate guide to keeping kids safe online. Retrieved from https://educateempowerkids.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/Social_Media_Guide_Contract_Single_Pages.pdf 

Heid, M. (2017). We need to talk about kids and smartphones. Time. Retrieved from  http://time.com/4974863/kids-smartphones-depression/ 

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