Is hypertexting a health problem?

By Cindy Merrick

A recent survey of high schoolers indicated some attention-grabbing relationships between high-risk behavior such as alcohol and drug abuse and frequent sexual activity, with activities known as “hypertexting” (texting at least 120 messages per school day) and “hypernetworking” (spending at least 3 hours per school day on social networking sites).

Dr. Scott Frank of Case Western Reserve University announced last week the findings of a survey of over 4200 high school students in the Midwest at an annual meeting of the American Public Health Association in Denver in a talk entitled, “Hypertexting and Hypernetworking: A New Health Risk Category for Teens?” In his abstract, Frank says that 19.8 percent of the students fell into the category of hypertexting and 11.5 percent fell into the category of hypernetworking.

This survey associated both behaviors with higher levels of sexual activity, binge drinking, suicidal ideation, and tobacco and marijuana use. Further, participators in hypertexting and hypernetworking tended to be obese or have other eating disorders and get less sleep. Such associations were made after controlling for demographic factors. Frank concludes that “Excessive use of communications technology among teens is related to higher levels of health risk behaviors and poorer health outcomes.”

Specific numbers from the survey look compelling: hypertexters are 43 percent more likely to be binge drinkers and 41 percent more likely to have used illicit drugs; hypernetworkers are 69 percent more likely to be binge drinkers and 84 percent more likely to have used illicit drugs. Less clear is what the link between hypertexting or hypernetworking and risky behavior actually is.

Which means it’s premature to label hypertexting and hypernetworking a “Health Risk Category.” No direct harm is described and, as Frank told the Washington Post, “the study was not intended to show causality.”

Unfortunately, his university’s press release ran with the headline “Hyper-texting and Hyper-Networking Pose New Health Risks for Teens,” and other news organizations followed suit. Frank offered the Post a thin justification: “It does depend on who they’re texting with. Their choice of friends in the single most important thing. The more texting they do, the more potential for exposure to high-tech peer pressure.”

But what are the odds the kids wouldn’t have any friends or be subjected to peer-pressure if they didn’t text? This seems to be a case of mistaking the tool for the cause, and the best that can be said for such a notion is that it begs for more direct study. In fact, it wouldn’t be incorrect to succinctly state Frank’s findings this way: Teens Likely to Try Risky Behavior Also Text a Lot!


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