Monday, December 6, 2010

Hypertexting and risky behaviors: A cautionary tale?

By Tristan Gorrindo, M.D.

Last month, researchers at the American Public Health Association’s annual meeting reported some alarming statistics about the connection between high levels of message texting and risky behaviors. In a study of high school students in the Midwest, the researchers found a relationship between those that send more than 120 texts per school day (20% of the students surveyed fell into this group) and increased experimentation with cigarettes and alcohol, binge drinking, physical fighting, and a high number of sexual partners. These results were widely reported by several major media outlets including CNN and the Associated Press .

While the authors of this research clearly state that they don’t think that “hypertexting” causes students to drink more or engage in risky behaviors, I worry that this fine-point is lost on most people who are just reading the headlines.

Since most of us don’t remember our high school statistics class, I think it’s worth thinking about how two ideas can be related (as they are here) but not necessarily in a causal relationship. An analogy I often use is the finding that yellow teeth and lung cancer are highly connected in research studies. It isn’t that tartar covered teeth cause lung cancer, or that lung cancer causes teeth to yellow. It turns out that there is a common root-cause of both– that is smoking cigarettes causes both yellow teeth and lung cancer.

In a similar manner, there might be an underlying root-cause (or several different causes), which cause kids to use cigarettes and alcohol and to be hypertexters. These root-causes might include poor parental supervision, mental illness, or even a learning disability, just to name a few. But until we conduct more careful studies, we won’t know for sure.

Certainly, parents should know how many texts per day their child is sending. And in the same way that I encourage parents to talk to their kids about alcohol use or sexual activity, they should also be talking to their kids about the ways in which they are using technology.

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