Are mobile phones causing Teens to turn to crime? Frequent texting linked to antisocial behaviour in children

Although the internet is often seen as a dangerous place for teenagers, their mobile phone and specifically their text messages could be just as damaging and influential.

Research from the University of Texas have found a ‘strong link’ between those teenagers who send and receive texts about antisocial behaviour, such as rule breaking, drugs and physical aggression, and those who go onto commit similar crimes.

The scientists also reported that antisocial texting could be used to predict deviant behaviour in the future.

‘We were interested in how adolescents use electronic communication, particularly text messaging,’ said Dr. Samuel Ehrenreich, post-doctoral researcher in the School of Behavioural and Brain Sciences at UT Dallas who lead the research. 

‘We examined how discussing antisocial behaviour – substance abuse, property crimes, physical aggression, that sort of thing – how discussing that predicts actually engaging in this problem behaviour.’

‘Basically, does talking about bad behaviour predict bad behaviour?’

Although the idea of studying the texting habits of teens may not be new, looking directly at the messages they are sending is.

Past studies relied on self-reported texting behaviours, in which the participants were asked about their texting habits but the texts themselves weren’t seen.

Ehrenreich said this theory may be flawed due to teens providing inaccurate information about texts.

For example, he claims they would not likely self-report texting about misbehaviour.

Teens also send an average of 60 to 100 texts per day, so they may simply ‘forget’ about much of the texting they do.

To counter these problems, free BlackBerry devices and service plans were given to 172 teenagers aged between 14 and 15 years old who were told their texts would be monitored.

The participants were also rated before and after the school year for rule breaking and aggressive behaviour by parents, teachers and in self reports.

Analysis of a sample of texts from two points in time revealed similarities in the types of antisocial messages between boys and girls.

These included discussions of rule-breaking, illicit substance use, physical aggression or property crimes.

Overall, the rate of antisocial texts was small, at less than two per cent of the total messages sent and received.

However, from this small percentage of messages, a strong link was found between those teenagers exchanging antisocial texts and the ratings of antisocial and aggressive behaviour at the end of the school year.

‘We know that peers are really influential in an adolescent’s development. We also know that peer influence can lead to antisocial behaviour at times, and this form of communication provides a new opportunity for peer influence,’ Ehrenreich said.

‘Texting is instantaneous, far reaching and it has these unique characteristics that make it all the more powerful, and this provides a new opportunity for peer influence.’

Although this study focused on antisocial communications, Ehrenreich cautioned against thinking texting is all bad.

‘Texting is meaningful, and within the archive we also saw positive, meaningful communications,’ Ehrenreich said.

‘We saw a lot of really heartfelt encouragement that goes on, on the spot, when the students needed it. I think there is a lot that’s both good and bad, just like any other form of communication. Texting matters.’

The findings were reported in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology.

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