When teenagers send text messages it is mostly as harmless. But when the texting is antisocial, it can actually predict deviant behavior, according to a new study from the University of Texas at Dallas involving more than 76,000 text messages.

“We were interested in how adolescents use electronic communication, particularly text messaging,” said Dr. Samuel Ehrenreich, post-doctoral researcher. “We examined how discussing antisocial behavior – substance abuse, property crimes, physical aggression, that sort of thing – how discussing that predicts actually engaging in this problem behavior. Basically, does talking about bad behavior predict bad behavior?”

Studying the texting habits of teens is not a new idea by means, but examining the messages they are sending is. Previous studies were based on self-reported texting behaviors. That could be flawed due to teens not being likely self-report texting about mis-behavior.

One Bad Apple

Teenagers send an average of 60-100 texts per day, so they may just forget about a lot of the texting they do. To get round these problems, free BlackBerry devices and service plans were given to 172 ninth-grade students with the understanding that their texts would be monitored.

Participants were rated before and after the school year by parents, teachers and in self reports on rule breaking and aggressive behavior. Text messages were collected and stored offsite in a secure database.

Sample texts from two points in time showed similarities in the types of antisocial messages between boys and girls. They included discussions of rule-breaking, illicit substance use, physical aggression or property crimes.

Overall, the rate of antisocial texts was tiny, less than 2 percent of all messages sent and received. However, from this small percentage of messages, a robust link was found between those teenagers exchanging antisocial texts and the ratings of antisocial and aggressive behavior at the end of the school year.

Peer Influence

“We know that peers are really influential in an adolescent’s development. We also know that peer influence can lead to antisocial behavior 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."

Yes, the study puts a spotlight on antisocial communications, but that doesn’t mean 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 communication. Texting matters."

Ehrenreich S.E. et al. (2013). Adolescents’ text message communication and growth in antisocial behavior across the first year of high school. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology. DOI 10.1007/s10802-013-9783-3

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