Hmmm. Should Peter Pan have signed up for unlimited texting? 1

It was 1995 or so when I first came across Sherry Turkle. Her book, “Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet,” was intriguing academics, scaring parents, and launching incomprehensible book reviews from coast to coast.

Now, a quick word of caution: You can’t apply today’s context to the title. The MIT professor’s book was focused not on the just-emerging World Wide Web, but on the role-playing games that had been proliferating online and the people who inhabited the MUDs – multiple-user domains – that helped define them. Guess what: some of them viewed “RL” (real life) as just another role-playing game … another “screen” to be navigated through … and as such a world no more or less valid than that inhabited by any of their avatars.

But no, that’s not the scary part. Not only did she seem to like this postmodern way of knowing, where people were happy to inhabit their simulated lives “at interface value” (admittedly, there’s a great line), but she also saw it becoming the source of identity formation for a new generation. Hence the title.

Over the intervening decade and a half, millions of people have spent billions of hours in front of computer monitors trying to prove her right, but a funny thing seems to be happening on the way to the new definition of identity.

That funny thing is texting. From Tuesday’s New York Times:

“Among the jobs of adolescence are to separate from your parents, and to find the peace and quiet to become the person you decide you want to be,” (Turkle) said. “Texting hits directly at both those jobs.”

Psychologists expect to see teenagers break free from their parents as they grow into autonomous adults, Professor Turkle went on, “but if technology makes something like staying in touch very, very easy, that’s harder to do; now you have adolescents who are texting their mothers 15 times a day, asking things like, ‘Should I get the red shoes or the blue shoes?’ “

Is that post-post-modern? I don’t know, but it’s kinda familiar. Back in March, Peggy Orenstein worried in the NYT Magazine that Facebook would eliminate kids’ chance to grow up by keeping them in touch with their hometown friends. And of course there are the problems with kids texting during holiday dinners, texting while driving, texting while … oh, never mind.

The same NYT piece that quotes Turkle says the average American teenager sent and received an average of 2,272 texts per month in the fourth quarter of 2008, or roughly 80 per day. Post-post-modern or no, the job of adolescence is unlikely ever to be the same.

About Owen Youngman

Professor Emeritus of Journalism and formerly Knight Chair in Digital Media Strategy, Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University. Formerly senior vice president/strategy and development and director of interactive media, Chicago Tribune.

One thought on “Hmmm. Should Peter Pan have signed up for unlimited texting?

  • Tom Davidson


    If heavy texting is a sign that the kid won’t go away to college (or, worse, comes *back*), then I’m seizing Conor’s cellphone as a preventative measure. Right now.

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