Let the evidence fit the theory

Michael Rosen’s Word of mouth on Radio 4 focused on the uses and abuses of texting.

Texting at 15 years old is a relatively new form of communication. Limited to 160 characters thumbed on a 12 digit keypad people – notably teenagers – adopted tricks to be concise.

The use of abbreviations, misspellings & slang alarmed some people. As broadcasting attack-dog John Humphries put it, texters are:

“…vandals who are doing to our language what Genghis Khan did to his neighbours eight hundred years ago…They are destroying it: pillaging our punctuation; savaging our sentences; raping our vocabulary. And they must be stopped.”

Many assumed the young were trapped in a textspeak world, their ability to communicate permanently stunted. This has  been the dominant theory for some since, given credence and momentum by the media.

Rosen’s interview with linguist Professor David Crystal dispelled some of the myths about texting. His analysis of thousands of text messages revealed:

  • Typically, less than 10% of words were abbreviated
  • Adults were more likely to use textspeak than kids
  • Sending text messages improves literacy – it provides an opportunity for people to engage with the language through reading and writing

I spent several years researching how young people use technology for a government project. Our research showed that whilst textspeak was rife, young people code-switched depending on the context. The texts & instant messages shared between our panel of young people would have pushed Humphries puce. The texts shared upwards with adults were spelt correctly: different audience, different intention, and different approach. Panic over.

Scanning what’s been written about the subject online, you notice some of the media coverage of texting seems to be a thinly-veiled critique of young people in general. An opportunity to vent about our feral youth. There is also a widespread rejection of any positive evidence about texting (see the comments here for example). Personal experience burns more brightly than peer-reviewed science.

The merits of texting aside, the programme was a reminder that a theory can be the biggest obstacle to objectivity.

About Simon Shaw

I'm a Director at an insight consultancy. I'm interested in marketing, market research & consumer psychology. The views expressed are not necessarily those of my employer.
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