Who emails anymore? TEXT ME!

On March 10, 1876, Alexander Graham Bell’s iconic imperative “Mr. Watson—come here—I want to see you” became the first words transmitted via telephone. With no fanfare, that simple command ushered in a change that would, in a relatively short time, affect every person on the globe.

A similar event would occur on December 10, 1992, when an engineer with the telecommunication firm Seam would send a message from his computer over the Vodafone network to a colleague’s phone. The first text message was simply “Merry Christmas,” and, like its predecessor in 1876, it would become a cultural phenomenon that would literally change the world in ways no one could have predicted.

SMS capability was slow to develop. Its first uses were limited to sending and receiving messages to and from subscribers on a common cell phone network. Billing issues and fraud were common problems, as cell phone technology, including SMS capability, moved ahead at a pace that saw the technology advance before the infrastructure required to maintain it was developed and in place.

Initially, telecommunications firms were skeptical about the public’s reaction and use of the service. In 1995, the average number of texts sent per subscriber was just .4 per month on mobile devices, but by 2012, that number had grown to a staggering total of 6 billion texts per day in the United States alone.

By the time the technical issues were resolved, a niche for the service had been defined. According to CNN, teenagers send and receive an average of 60 texts a day, up 10 from 50 a year ago. Indeed, texting has become an integral part of our lives, almost by accident, and has become so firmly embedded in our culture it is hard to imagine life before texting. Much more than a passing fad, the use of texting has grown from its niche market with teens to a multi-billion dollar industry, it has found uses in marketing, advertising, banking, bill pay, shopping, blogging, flirting, and dating.

In addition to social uses, texting has even worked its way into more serious parts of our lives. Diabetic users of the new drug Bydureon have the option to receive a text message when it is time for their weekly injection, and Walgreens notifies its pharmacy customers that their prescription is in need of a refill.

Texting allows parents to stay in contact with their children. Failure to respond to a parent’s text may often be a message in itself as failure to receive a daily text from a family member or friend may indicate trouble, prompting a response from family or caregiver. Ensconced in the very fabric of society, this cultural phenomenon is one that we all embrace.

While the benefits of this phenomenon may seem endless, there is, nonetheless, a dark side. Initially, naïve parents were shocked to receive a cell phone bill that includes charges for tens of thousands of texts over and above their service plane, which often did not include a text package.

While texting and driving is so obviously dangerous, the risk may seem inconsequential in comparison to other misuses of text messaging. Drug dealers have no doubt exploited the uses of SMS in their activities, and recent attention and debate has been drawn to teen “sexting.”

While seemingly innocent, “sexting” has serious consequences such as distribution of child pornography, and a conviction would require the offender to register as a sex offender for life. In 2010, a Florida boy was lured to his death by text messages he believed to be from his girlfriend, and many inappropriate relationships have been exposed by text messages that were carelessly not erased.  A whole generation of students that has grown up with the technology does not differentiate between “text spelling” and proper grammar.

Clearly, as this new cultural phenomenon continues to develop, we need to pay attention to both the good and bad implications its use may encourage. Texting seemed to fly in “under the radar” as far as parents are concerned, so it may be a call to those parents to keep abreast of technological advancements and identify those that may have an impact on their children’s lives, as well as their own.