Health and wellness

How texting can be good for your social, mental and physical health, contrary to what’s said about its role in ADHD and spinal damage

We’ve heard the stories of spinal damage, attention deficit and the breakdown of social interactions caused by texting. Now, some experts are citing the positive effects of the thumb-driven communication

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 07 August, 2018, 8:00pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 07 August, 2018, 8:00pm

Texting is blamed for everything from fostering social isolation to increasing teens’ risk of ADHD to driving down adolescent self-esteem to damaging the spine – a phenomenon known as “text neck.”

But some technological and medical experts say the negativity is unfair and overblown. Texting can and should be a positive force in people’s lives, both in terms of emotional and physical health, they say – so long as it’s done correctly.

If done well, experts say, texting can improve interpersonal relationships, help people deal with traumatic events and bridge intergenerational gaps.

A 2012 study conducted by psychologists at the University of California at Berkeley found that sending and receiving text messages boosted texters’ moods when they were feeling upset or lonely.

Texting eases communication with personal doctors, advances research as an easy and accurate way of gathering patient information in scientific studies, and can offer support to at-risk or suicidal individuals via instant-response crisis text lines.

Eric Topol, digital health expert and executive vice-president of the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, admits he’s not a huge fan of texting, but says even he has been forced to acknowledge its benefits.

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“I’m not a big texter, [but] I also recognise it has many attributes for promoting health,” he says.

It all comes down to when and how you text, according to Sherry Turkle, author of Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, and Tchiki Davis, who holds a doctorate in psychology and studies, writes and consults on well-being technology. Both say there’s one cardinal rule of texting: don’t do it when you’re around other people.

If you’re out to dinner with friends, put your phone away and keep it out of sight, says Turkle. Even leaving the phone – turned off and face down – visible on the table will make conversations more trivial and will reduce the possibility of empathetic communication.

Some people use texting to avoid difficult face-to-face interactions. “Don’t let it turn you away from the necessary vulnerability you need to feel in relationships,” says Turkle. “Is texting keeping me away from a necessary conversation? If not, enjoy.”

It’s better to refrain from texting even around total strangers, says Davis. She mentions what she calls a classic scenario – when commuting home from work at the end of a long day, people whip out their phones and disappear into their screens, ignoring their fellow passengers on the bus or the subway.

“The research would suggest you would get more out of your experience if you try to interact with strangers – a whole body of research shows we can improve your well-being even through just tiny interactions with strangers,” says Davis. “Basically, anytime you’re with another person, I would recommend keeping your phone off or on silent.”

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Once you’re completely and truly alone, go ahead and break out your phone, but be thoughtful about who and what you text. Run through your roster of friends and family and consider who might be feeling lonely or confronting a difficult situation. Then shoot them a message.

And if you yourself are struggling, texting a loved one is a great way to handle it, says Davis. Studies have shown that people who text and reach out to others experience less pain. It can be used to cope and just kind of deal with challenging situations. Do reach out to others if you’re alone and need support,” says Davis.

Turkle says texting is an especially good way for parents to connect with their adult children. Her daughter is getting married and recently went shopping for a wedding dress. Though Turkle couldn’t come along, her daughter texted her pictures of different dresses, often accompanied by question marks.

She says the messages made her feel close to her daughter.

“It gives you a sense of co-presence – the little dots give you the fantasy of, it’s happening as you’re there with it,” says Turkle. “I think now parents and children are able to stay in touch in a much better way because of texting and have a greater sense of continuity of presence.”

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More doctors, scientific researchers and mental-health advocates are using texting in their everyday work and are realising its benefits, says Topol.

For physicians and their patients, texting offers a quick and non intrusive way of getting in touch. Turkle remembers noticing a rash on her calf. It would have been a “big deal” to call her doctor after 9pm – so instead, she texted him a picture of the rash and asked whether she needed to visit casualty. He replied right away.

“He said, ‘You ate something, don’t worry’,” she says.

The ease, speed and ubiquity of texting also renders it a powerful asset for research, says Topol. Over the past five years, texting has been used to collect information in dozens of randomised trials studying things such as pregnancy, blood pressure and diabetes.

Texting expands the scope and size of randomised trials because, given that nearly 70 per cent of the world’s population likely has mobile phones, it can be done almost anywhere around the globe. It reduces “labour intensiveness” because researchers are not forced to play “phone tag” with trial participants. It can be done algorithmically, eliminating the need for human intervention. It allows for immediate feedback. And finally, most people are more likely to reply to a text than an email.

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“Most people respect getting texts, that is, it’s high on their priority list of things to do,” says Topol.

In recent years, advocates have started suicide and mental-health support lines that exclusively offer text-based support. Crisis Text Line, founded in 2013, offers 24/7 help – connecting texters with trained crisis counsellors – throughout the United States. As of July 2018, the group had received and responded to over 75 million texts.

Lean On Me offers a similar all-hours service, but specifically targets college students. The organisation, launched in 2016 by a handful of MIT undergraduates and one alumnus, connects texters with volunteer peer supporters. Since its founding, Lean On Me has expanded to seven college campuses, including MIT’s.

“Sometimes students need a quick outlet to vent about their day, talk about a frustration or simply hold a conversation,” Lean On Me staffer Shaye Carver wrote in an email. “I don’t think vulnerability necessarily requires face-to-face interaction … Texting allows users to respond in a minute or an hour and take as much time as they want to reflect on how they feel.”