woman sending a text from a mobile phone. Learn to text more mindfully
By Categories: All, Mindfulness6.8 min read
Matt Hersh, PhD

Dr. Matt Hersh holds a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, with a specialization in child and family clinical psychology. He is a licensed clinical psychologist and mindfulness teacher in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts with a private practice in the Boston area.

So he starts picking a fight with me and yells, “What’s wrong with you, why do you always do that?!?” And I am so pissed and yell back, “You always do this! Why can’t you just calm down!”

If you’ve ever been in a really intense moment of a relationship, this might sound or feel familiar.

But what if I told you that this was a real fight someone had over text. I had the interesting privilege of seeing the actual text communication to abruptly transform my disbelief into a different kind of shock.

Text After Text After Text

According to the Pew Research Center (from the 2011 Internet and American Life Project), the average American sends 40 texts a day.  The average 18-29 year old sends a staggering 109 texts a day. And what about teens, whose brains are deep in the throes of developing the capacities for impulse control, decision making, and social-emotional savvy? Well, teens send approximately one text for every 15 minutes they are awake (and perhaps a few while they are not). If you do the quick math, that’s roughly 60 texts per day, depending on how much teens sleep. How much sleep teens get these days is left for another blog post though.

The Pew research findings were broken down even further, and this is when I was rendered utterly speechless – at least temporarily. Nearly 20% of teens send over 200 texts every single day! And only 1% aren’t texting at all.

Given this sobering data, it’s safe to assume then that, as a culture, we text. Period. Most of texting is often quite harmless and helps to facilitate meetings with people, alerting others of our being late, seeking advice, coordinating parenting plans, reminding others of an idea we had, or “chatting” about fun or interesting things.

One might argue that we are (almost literally) glued to our cell phones and smart device SMS apps. But what are the darker sides of the texting world? What about texting used for arguing, dating, complaining, bullying, stalking, and being victimized.

Texting Gone Wrong

These last several functions of texting (and of course of social media use in general) have come to light in an extremely sad and dark manner. When 12 year old Rebecca Sedwick of Florida committed suicide in September of this year, she had long been cyber-bullied relentlessly at the fingertips of two peers, one a former friend. Rebecca allegedly would wake up to texts telling her to kill herself and that she deserved to die.

Now this is quite an extreme and horrific case, but let’s pause and reflect for a moment. How many times we have sent texts in anger, out of spite, with malicious intent, within bouts of depressed mood, while drunk, while high, or perhaps during the peak feelings of utter elation. Or maybe we just complain over text just to complain.

What happens in these moments? Do we really communicate what we intend? Would we have “said” the same things to a person’s face or over the phone? To what extent are we hiding from ourselves, protecting our vulnerability, or masking our true feelings? Or to what extent are our emotions or urges running the show, prompting us to impulsively or compulsively react with our “words?” Texting and social media in general allow us to do all of the above – and much much more.

One Noticeable Problem with Texting: Invisibility

One of the main problems with texting (despite its many virtues and amazing conveniences) is that of its invisibility.  When the intent behind our messages is hidden in the radio waves bouncing up to a tower and back down to the cell phone of the recipient, the opportunity for detection of voice intonation and non-verbal cues is often lost. How could it not be?

Ok, so emoticons may help  🙂 and punctuation may catch our attention! But they can’t replace what the intonation of our voice can do to both mollify and madden. With some studies showing that up to 90% of our communication is ultimately non-verbal, how do we effectively communicate over text when our intent and meta-message are overwhelmingly invisible.

Some may argue that it should be quite clear when someone is relaying messages to us through text in hostile ways, for example. This perhaps may have some truth to it, but the notion of invisibility again arises as a problem. The person who is “textually” attacking another person is hiding, in one way or another. Would that same person lay into their partner, friend, or family member in person or over the phone in the same manner? And if they did, there would be different evidence, different consequences, and perhaps more “justifiable justice” to be sought.

Maybe people find themselves more courageous or emboldened over text (or through other social media outlets). This may also be the case, and yet we find ourselves returning to the problem of invisibility. Let’s consider for a moment if Harry Potter made his way throughout the entire series wearing his invisibility cloak. He would gradually disappear from the minds and hearts of his fellow schoolmates and teachers. His true voice would not be heard. His true presence would not be understood or valued for what it ultimately was.

So while it is true that we may muster more courage through text to ask someone out, to deny a request for help, or to tell off an annoying friend, we remain somewhat hidden, and our true message is cloaked in something we have taken for granted.

At the threat of sounding like an old curmudgeon, I would argue that we aren’t allowing ourselves the developmentally healthy opportunities to build real world, person to person, mind to mind, and heart to heart life skills. And as developmental psychologists and interpersonally-oriented neuroscientists would strongly argue, we develop over our lifespan in relation to others and in the presence of others. Learning how to be with others provides the seeds for true growth as well as true healing.

One could argue that we were likely not designed to be hunched over small rectangular devices every 15 minutes each day with our thumbs persistently churning out upwards of 100 words per minute.

But we can be certain of one thing: we are building very strong thumbs and hand-eye coordination. Our muscular thumbs will never be at risk of being too invisible.

So here are a few tips for mindful texting that may help us navigate this fast-paced and sometimes confusing world of radio wave communication.

Mindful Texting Tips

  1. Before you poise and prep your fingertips for sending yet another text, pause. Pause and breathe for a moment or two. Intentionally pausing and breathing set the mind-body stage for more effective reflection and purposeful action. This also trains your brain, mind, and body to build in more pauses during the day, and this has far-reaching positive effects on mental, emotional, social, and physical health.
  2. Once paused, see if you can reflect on what your intentions truly are for this text. Are you meaning to simply plan an event? Are you checking in with a friend you haven’t spoken to in a while? Is there some hint of hiding? Does texting in that moment serve the function of avoiding an uncomfortable interaction or having to assert yourself in some way? Try to be honest with yourself as best you can. This process can help you discover aspects of your more “autopilot” tendencies and thus can help you live more a mindful, purposeful, and present life.
  3. When you receive a reply text, try again to pause and breath for a moment or two before compulsively/impulsively checking your phone and firing off another reply. Check your intention for this reply text. Unlike within typical person to person interactions, we can actually pause for a while and more deeply reflect on what we would like to say. This has its profound benefits too.

For another look at the impact of high-speed social media, check out Mindful Media Consumption.  Also look out for another post on texting, impulse control, and divided attention.

Be well, and text mindfully,

Share this Article