J Johnson acknowledges that text messaging takes away from the human contact of communicating face-to-face or on the telephone.
It doesn't stop him from sending a message "every five minutes," though, and he says he would rather text than talk in certain situations - especially if the person on the other end of the conversation is a female love interest.
"You can get a lot more across if you're shy and you're texting a girl than you would probably feel comfortable with saying on the phone," Johnson, a senior at Altoona Area High School, said. "So, it's a different way to communicate that gets away from the whole person-to-person aspect, but in some ways it actually improves communication."
Johnson also routinely spends "most of the night" on Facebook, but doesn't see that as a negative, either. He views it as a way to stay in touch with people he hasn't seen in a while.
Altoona Area Junior High School Principal Lori Mangan and Senior High Guidance Counselor Drew Yingling say they've both seen the effects the attachment to technological communication has had on students.
Because it's easier and more convenient to make a comment through messaging than in a face-to-face situation, some children now prefer to converse that way, Mangan said.
Part 1of a 4-part series on new technology's effects on youths.
Today: How new methods of communication may affect face-to-face interactions.
Monday: Are some children addicted to technological pastimes?
Tuesday: How kids use new technologies to bully in new, frightening ways.
Wednesday: Positive effects of today's technology
"I think it makes it hard for them to communicate in person, because they don't have the skills to do that, since they rely so heavily on technology," she said.
Personal interaction is "definitely taking a downfall" as a result of technological advances, according to Yingling. He said young people are often nervous about face-to-face conversations, which makes them awkward when they do occur.
The more dependent a person is on communicating online or via text, the less adept they may be at picking up on subtle clues when they're communicating in person, Yingling said.
"When you're speaking to a person face-to-face, you can discern inflection, tone of voice and other non-verbal indicators," he said. "When you're texting or [instant messaging], there are certain social nuances that are missed, and what you're trying to say may be misconstrued by the person on the other end."
Johnson and classmate Kiersten O'Dellick said they use Facebook predominantly to stay in touch with people they don't see regularly, and they don't believe their social skills have taken a hit from exposure to technology.
O'Dellick said she sends thousands of text messages every month and admitted that she might use her phone and Facebook "too often," but added she would rather call her friends on the phone than text them and still meets people outside of social networking.
A recent study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found more than 30 percent of teenagers send more than 100 texts a day, and about two-thirds of teenagers are now more likely to text their friends than call them.
Altoona Area ninth-grade guidance counselor Julie Yahner sees how children depend on technology every day at school and sometimes at home, too.
A couple of years ago, when her daughter was 14, Yahner remembered she'd been texting a boy back and forth the entire day. The kids were making a plan to meet up at a festival they were both going to attend.
Once they were at the festival, though, Yahner saw them walk right past one another without even saying hello.
"I asked her, 'Weren't you just talking to him all day, and you can't even say hello?'" Yahner said.
During Yahner's childhood, she was always looking to get out of the house to be with friends, but said her daughter and her friends seem to be OK hanging out at home, staying in touch by texting.
Possible side effects
Nobody really knows yet what effects - if any - new technology may have on the development of social skills in adolescents and teens because of a lack of definitive research, according to John Chapin, a communications professor at Penn State Beaver.
"These technologies are daily experiences that are literally reshaping how people are thinking," Chapin said. "There could be an impact on a child's personality and how they relate to other people, but from a research perspective we really have no idea what that's going to do over time."
College students may be a good demographic from which to observe potential effects, because they are among the first group to grow up with access to newly popular technologies, noted Penn State Hazleton social sciences professor Peter Crabb.
Crabb studies the impact of consumer technologies on social behavior. He said he is mostly against new technology, doesn't own a cell phone and is worried about the "growing problem" of technological advances.
"Kids are so used to interacting by texting or e-mail or whatever that they can't even communicate in an effective and polite way, which I think is a problem," Crabb said, noting students are unwilling to make eye contact with him when speaking.
John Carroll, Information Sciences and Technology professor at Penn State, disagrees. If anything, he thinks his students may be better at speaking, because communication is "generally emphasized more" in schools today than it used to be.
They both agreed with Penn State Altoona communication professors Mary Lou Nemanic and Kevin Moist's conclusion that students' writing skills have suffered, despite most of them typing and sending hundreds of messages daily.
"There's a real decline in grammar and proper spelling among students," Nemanic said, which she attributed to the frequency of texting. She said students are so used to the fragmented grammar common in text messages that they end up composing their e-mails and papers in the same format.
Moist said he's noticed students have trouble staying on topic when they write papers, which may come from multi-tasking and having access to so much information on varying topics.
Carroll said he's "impressed" that the language used in social computing and texting is much less precise and "sloppier" than anything his generation was allowed to get away with.
"I wonder if sloppy expression will entail sloppy thinking," he said.
Finding some balance
According to Carroll, there are two issues that need to be addressed in relation to technology and social skill development: Do texting and social computing make students weaker at face-to-face communication? And if so, does it matter?
"We should always bear in mind when we assess the impacts of today's information technology that it has been evolving for a very long time," Carroll said in an e-mail. "It evolves more quickly now, and that is definitely an issue, but each generation does things a bit differently."
Each generation also does an awful lot the same, he said.
Carroll pointed out that kids use new communication tools to arrange activities and interactions, many of which are similar to the ones he used to arrange with his friends using a rotary telephone - something he said "slightly horrified" his parents.
Michelle Rodino-Colocino, a Penn State professor of communications, said it's typical for new technologies to be frightening culturally.
"There's just more ways to interact now, and I think people get a little scared when the old ways are dying out," Rodino-Colocino said. "Every time a new technology comes out, there are some fears that get dredged up, and people tend to focus more on what could be negative than positive."
According to Carroll, we're in a period of "social tumult" that is far from over, but he thinks what children need is balance.
"That is nothing new," Carroll said. "There are people right now who watch TV all day long instead of going out and speaking with others, and something went seriously wrong with their socialization somewhere, but you cannot blame information technology for that."
O'Dellick tries to maintain that balance. She makes sure she continues to interact with people face-to-face whenever she's able, and thinks it's working out pretty well.
"Honestly, I don't think this affects the way I communicate with people at all, and I don't think it will," she said. "You can be whoever you want to be through a text, but the real you kind of comes out in person, and I don't think that's something that will change."
Mirror Staff Writer Scott Muska is at 946-7435.