College Kids Will Literally Text Through Anything

A new study shows just how badly college kids crave their emoji-laden communication.
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(Photo: Potstock/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Potstock/Shutterstock)

The scenario is all too familiar: You’re on a date, at a movie, or at work when, suddenly, you feel that familiar buzz in your pocket. You’ve just got a new text message and know this is neither the time nor place to respond. And yet, you do it anyway. This may get you labeled as inconsiderate or socially oblivious, but researchers at Penn State-Harrisburg have discovered that while this type of texting behavior is common, it isn’t because we don’t understand social etiquette—it’s just that texting is too enticing.

The worst texting offenders, it's been well-documented, are college students, so researchers polled 150 of them in an attempt to better understand young adult's texting habits—specifically, they wanted to know when the allure of texting is so powerful that kids will bypass traditional social etiquette, and whether that habit might, in effect, re-write social etiquette.

The first takeaway from the study, appropriately titled “2 TXT or not 2 TXT”: There is just about no situation in which a college student hasn’t texted. On the toilet, in the shower, while having sex—you name it, someone has sent a text while doing it.

“I really just wonder how some of these are logistically possible,” says lead author Marissa Harrison, only half kidding. “I’m not a clinician, but is texting that addictive that it would propel you to have to respond when you know in a given situation that’s it’s wrong? And the answer seems to be yes.”

There is just about no situation in which a college student hasn’t texted. On the toilet, in the shower, while having sex—you name it, someone has sent a text while doing it.

While this may be the case, Harrison and her colleagues also discovered that these students, while breaching social etiquette, are well aware that they are doing so. For example, 85 percent of respondents admitting to texting while in class, 84 percent while hanging out with a friend, and 71 percent while in a movie they paid to see—yet the majority of them said that in all three scenarios, texting is not socially acceptable.

“I think the college students separated [normal etiquette and texting behavior],” Harrison says. “For the most part, they agreed on what was inappropriate, but many reported doing it anyway. ... The evidence suggests that these social norms are not being re-written, just written over in a given situation. They know when it’s wrong, but they’re doing it anyway.”

Harrison, an evolutionary psychologist, hypothesizes that the reason we’re compelled to deliberately break social etiquette has to do with how humans are hardwired.

“I see evolution in everything,” she says. “Humans are programmed to pay attention to moving things. The fact that we can’t help but look at the screen—I see why it distracts us and attracts us. If you’re out with your date and you text anyway, it’s doesn’t explain that, but the notion that we’re attracted to moving and changing things is hardwired into us.”

So next time you get a text while, say, having sex, maybe fight the urge to respond. You know better.

Quick Studies is an award-winning series that sheds light on new research and discoveries that change the way we look at the world.

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