Yes, I know the dangers. That it affects the brain like an addictive drug. That it shortens our attention spans, and reduces our sleep, increases our stress and keeps us from interacting meaningfully with our kids. I have read all the studies and agree we should all back away from our screens, put down our phones and look each other in the eye when we talk.
But I make an exception for texting.
And science just might back me up on that.
"Wanna write about this and your obsessive texting with your boys?" our executive lifestyle editor, Lori Leibovich, asked me in an email, attaching a link to a small study by a graduate student at the University of Nebraska which concludes that "texting may actual tighten the family bond."
I responded: "'Obsessive' is such a judgey word. I prefer 'loving.' "
"I meant to say 'loving!'" Lori responded.
So loving it is. And yes, I very much want to write about the bit of technology that has transformed modern parenting.
Texting (and its cousins, Instant Messaging and G-chatting) is the one tool that isn't simply a faster, shorter, more souped up version of something we have always done. Cell phone calls are really just phone calls from a wider variety of places. The internet is a vast version of the encyclopedia, or the shopping mall or the movie theater. Email is, well, still mail. Heck Facebook is really a more frequent family Christmas letter.
Texts, though, are a new way to communicate -- rooted in those notes you passed between classes in middle school, maybe, but also completely different. They are like a conversation, but not exactly, intimate yet efficient, a way to be together but apart.
And oh the possibilities for parenting. I date my love of the medium to a long-ago Halloween, when my middle schooler's cell phone was brand new, and keyboards were such that you still had to press the '1' key three times to make a letter C. He was out wandering our town with friends when he sent me a text. "Can you come pick me up and say it was your idea?" it said.
I was a convert. We'd had The Talk, many times, that goes, "If you are ever uncomfortable in any situation you call me and I will come get you, no questions asked." And now he was making that call. But he also wasn't. He likely would never had picked up a phone and made that call. Certainly not if he had to locate a real phone, but probably not if he had to make voice contact. But no one knows who you are talking to when you use your thumbs. You could be joking with a friend, or asking your mom for help.
Over the years, texting became the way I reminded without nagging, asked questions that would be more intrusive face to face, sent advice in real time and gradually transitioned from giving security to giving freedom.
"Text when you get there," meant "Yes, you can go to the place that I might not otherwise feel comfortable allowing." We developed a short-hand, "NDID," or "not dead in ditch," which meant, well, they weren't. In the early driving years, I could wake up, roll over for my phone, find that text and go back to sleep.
And we created traditions. As my oldest drove south to college several times a year he sent a quick text as he crossed state borders: Maryland!!!! Virginia!!!! North Carolina!!!! (No. Not while he was driving. At rest stops.) Now all four of us send these brushstrokes of connection every time we depart or arrive, just because.
Over time both my sons moved away from home -- one is at college, the other is across the country starting a real grown-up life -- and our texts have become a running conversation. Casual, organic, spontaneous. Long gone are the Sunday night after 11 PM phone calls that connected my generation to our parents, often forced and awkward, summaries of each other's lives rather than unfolding participation. It's that long term connection that was the focus of the University of Nebraska study, in which 150 respondents were asked about the role of texting in their daily lives. Most of the women said that texting helps connect and enhance relationships with their families, and 80 percent of respondents agreed that they are more likely to be honest in a text than they are in person.
Like I said, I know there are dangers and downsides. This ability to be in constant touch with your parents can stunt the growth of a child into an adult, and I have heard all the stories of colleges that had to ban texting from the registrar's office because too many students couldn't make a decision about their courseload without asking Mom and Dad. And true, I often slap my own hand as a reminder to just back off and let them be... Don't just say good morning. Don't respond so quickly.
I know well that "obsessive" is the risk of too much "loving," but this is hardly the first technology with a risk, just one that is current. And the flip side of it is a new relationship with my children (and my husband, and my mom...) one that makes life a conversation not an appointment, one that knits us together, loosely but definitely.
On this, I happily press SEND.
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