As my son prepared to leave home for coding boot camp five years ago, I worried his communication style wouldn’t match my need for updates. I didn’t want to badger Justin (not his real name) but needed to know he was OK living over a thousand miles away. Before he left, I requested a weekly update via phone, email, or text. Justin selected texting.
The use of short written notes isn’t new. Folded notes traveled in batonlike fashion across rows of nonchalant students for generations. Then, almost overnight, handwritten notes were replaced by electronic messages. Social engagements, errands, lists, and countless updates travel faster, farther, and more frequently via text. Text messaging is the most widely used smartphone feature, so it wasn’t surprising that Justin chose this communication method.
As I watched him pass through airport security with a backpack and no checked luggage, I drew comfort knowing I’d receive an arrival message followed by weekly updates. As time went on, interview preparation and first-job bulletins were traded for garden and family summaries, while workout, diet, and pandemic news flowed in both directions. Justin flew home, and my husband and I visited, but my son’s texts were as important as the visits—at least to me. Over the years, we’ve probably shared as much by writing as if we’d managed to talk weekly.
Texting’s asynchronous nature is a huge factor in its success. Glen Morgan, retired clinical psychologist and behavioral science researcher at the National Institutes of Health, says texting is perfect for those too busy with work, school, or families to add synchronous, or real-time, conversations to their day. Both parties don’t have to be available to converse via text. It’s more convenient to respond as time allows than to interrupt the day for a phone conversation.
Texts are short in nature, which is another plus for those with busy lives. Morgan says texting is a great way to reach out when there is competition for time; texters get lots of connection for their effort. He added, “Texts can be very effective with only 30 seconds or a minute of effort, unlike phone calls where the time expectation is much longer.” Very few phone calls last less than a minute or two, but plenty of messages are that short.
Eric Cardwell, an individual and couple’s therapist, said humans have a strong need to feel attached to one another. “fMRI studies show the brain’s pain centers have less activity during periods of human connection,” he says. That social connection also helps reduce anxiety and depression. You can make those connections in multiple ways, such as through touch, voice, and even text. Cardwell sums up the advantage of connecting via text concisely, “the content doesn’t have to be lengthy for the connection to be enormous.”
Morgan said that one advantage of having an established texting routine is that it avoids the social anxiety of initiating a conversation. It can be burdensome to always be the one to initiate, even for a texting conversation. Justin and I fell into a communication pattern pretty quickly. I initially messaged throughout the week, but Justin held fast to a single Sunday evening text. I landed on a weekly response, and we’ve maintained this routine ever since.