THE BLOG
10/10/2013 05:02 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

What Would Amy Ask? Etiquette for Young People in the Age of Cell Phones

A couple of years ago before my daughter had graduated from college, I asked her why she never left a message when she called me. "Isn't it enough that you know I called?" she replied.

The etiquette of cell phone use is certainly an evolving one. When is it okay to talk on your phone and when is it not? When do you leave a message? When you're sitting with a group of friends is it okay to take a call, make a call, text? Are there some messages that it's just not okay to text?

We adults are struggling with these questions. But so are the so-called "digital natives," those young people who seem to be growing up with a cell phone in hand from very young ages. According to a 2012 study cited on the Center for Media and Child Health website, "22 percent of young children own a cell phone (ages 6-9), 60 percent of tweens (ages 10-14), and 84 percent of teens (ages 15-18)".

A quick Google search for "texting etiquette for kids" yields an astonishing 450,000 results. It's enough to keep Ask Amy or any etiquette columnist very busy.

Since most cell phones today have multiple functionalities, it's hard to know where to start in assessing emerging etiquette. But let's start with the more traditional phone functions of talking, leaving messages and answering calls.

Between the behavior of my own children and my students I have started to see this as something of a generational difference in philosophy. I would not think to call someone in a place or at a time where focused attention is supposed to be elsewhere, such as when I am paying for groceries or in class. But I am still startled to see my students talking on their phones when it is time for a class to begin or in a place, such as the library, where you'd think that talking should be verboten. It's not that adults don't do this too, but it seems to be even more commonplace among teenagers and young adults. And some of them seem to think that there are fairly clear if unspoken rules about when and where it's okay to talk on your cell.

A recent Huffington Post piece detailed the efforts of one restaurant that offers a discount to diners who leave their cell phones at the door. I mentioned this initiative in one of my classes and reaction was mixed: Some students thought this to be a good idea ("I wish we had a similar incentive in some of the dining halls here," one senior lamented), while others seemed to think this was not a big deal ("A restaurant is a public place; it's not like talking on your phone in the bathroom -- now that would be rude!" said a junior).

With regard to the question of whether or not to leave a message, there similarly seems to be a difference in behavior based on generation. Those of us brought up in the age of answering machines leave a message, almost always, even when it's awkward to do so. (There's a classic Seinfeld episode whose premise is the series of awkward messages the awkward George Costanza leaves on a potential date's machine that satirically document the dilemma of what to say when you really don't know what to say).


But there's seemingly no such awkwardness for younger generations who feel, like my daughter did, that it's simply enough for someone to know you've called by looking at the "missed call" icon on your phone. "That way it's on someone else's to do list to get back to you," said one of my students. "The onus is on them."

Even a recent column in Parents Magazine suggested that:

"It's important to let your children know that when a person steps out of a social or familial situation to use a mobile phone, they keep themselves from experiencing the moment; cell phones can become a constant pending (and sometimes realized) distraction. With voice messaging, there's no need to take every call or even to check to see who's calling."

Texting poses some of the same and some different questions of etiquette. Is it okay to text in public? Most young people seem to regard this as unambiguous since texting is so ubiquitous. When asked, most of my students responded that it's fine to text in the company of other people as long as you don't stop communicating with them in some way. "The new skill is to text while maintaining eye contact with someone else," pointed out a freshman. "We can multitask pretty easily so this is really do-able."

Answering a text message often poses more questions. "If someone doesn't get back to you right away, you wonder why," stated one of my students. "The assumption is that everyone is connected, always. If someone doesn't respond immediately, you wonder if there's a problem of some kind or if you've somehow made them uncomfortable by what you texted."

That said, most young people are pretty clear about the kinds of things are and aren't cool to text. Making plans? Absolutely (even when it's with someone who just lives down the hall from you). Exchanging information of most types? Almost always. Breaking up with someone? Never. Even if you never want to talk to that person again -- better to leave a voicemail than to text.

When asked about whether there's ever any ambiguity about messages because a text is so short and because it cannot give the same kind of social cues that voice or body language can, most college students seemed to acknowledge this but were not hugely concerned. "I have had instances where someone's misunderstood what I meant in a text," admitted a sophomore, "but it's pretty easy to correct these misunderstandings."

Innumerable sources offer parents advice on how to teach 'tweens and younger children proper texting etiquette. Don't text gossip, don't text bad news without context, understand that jokes and sarcasm can fall flat without other social cues, some suggest. "Teach your tween to refrain from texting a friend when they're in a fight or are angry with one another. Ask your child to wait until she's calmed down, and then encourage her to work things out in person or over the phone," suggests another.

And, of course, many advice columnists advise parents to practice what they preach. Don't text and drive. Don't use a cell phone as a substitute for face-to-face communication. If you don't want your child to learn to talk on a cell phone or text when they should be communicating real time interpersonally without a screen, don't do it, yourself.

I recently showed my graduate seminar on children and mass media a YouTube video that's become enormously popular. Charlene deGuzman and Miles Crawford's "I Forgot my Phone" has more than 25,000,000 hits at this writing. And no surprise. They cleverly and matter-of-factly depict the world in which so many young people now live -- a world in which they sit together and text or talk on their phones but don't talk to those with whom they are sitting, a world in which every experience, even the most intimate, has to be documented by a smartphone photo. It's a world that MIT professor Sherry Turkle has aptly pegged in the title of her most recent book: a world in which we like to think that we are more connected, but in which we are, in fact, Alone, Together.

When I showed this video, my students laughed. And then they sighed. They got it. They knew it was all kind of absurd. We talked about it and they agreed that the unspoken rules about when you talk, when you don't, when and what you text and snap photos of are all evolving. "It's a brave new world of mobile communication," concluded on of my master's students. She's right. It's not all clear and it's changing all the time. And what would Ask Amy say if we asked her?