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Teens turning texting into a full-time habit

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Morgan Smith is a master multitasker.

She can talk to friends, keep up with the debate team and walk and text all at the same time — and all on her cell phone — which is a must for most 15-year-olds girls.

In fact, according to a recent study conducted by the Pew Internet and American Life Project that looked at cell phone habits among 12- to 17-year-olds, a third of all teens — and Smith figures she's one of them — sends more than 3,000 texts a month.

When that translates to sending more than 100 texts a day, walking at the same time becomes inevitable.

"It's just easier," Smith says of her texting habit. "It's impossible to, like, talk on the phone for the whole day, but if you want to talk to someone …"

"… and you have unlimited texting, but not unlimited calling," interjects Smith's 15-year-old friend Marcela Franco, then the obvious solution is to text, they imply without finishing the sentence.

According to the Pew study, which surveyed the cell phone habits of 800 teens last fall, 75 percent of youths age 12-17 own cell phones. That's up from 45 percent in 2004. In even more of a jump, 88 percent of the teen cell phone users are text-messagers, up from 51 percent in 2006. Texting has become so prolific that 77 percent of 17-year-olds contact their friends daily by text, but only 34 percent talk to their friends face-to-face daily outside of school.

"The most frequently given reason why teens send and receive text messages is to 'just say hello and chat,' " the study says. "More than nine in 10 teens say they at least occasionally text just to say hello, and more than half say they do this several times a day."

For 17-year-old Tess Gingery, texting is also a way to relieve boredom. She got her first cell phone shortly after she and her sister got lost at the Grand Canyon a few years ago. Her parents bought it for safety reasons.

Now Gingery pays $30 extra a month for a BlackBerry — she's on her third (the first got ruined when she got thrown in a pool while it was in her pocket) — that can do everything a normal cell phone can but also surf the Internet, "and all that fun stuff," she says.

But Gingery can see the negative side to texting. She has friends who are obsessed with their phones, sending up to 10,000 texts a month and crying when their phones are taken for any reason. Some of her co-workers will leave a customer to go answer their phones. And then there are the misread words and the miscommunications that happen — "drama" is common.

"I've lost a lot of friends," Gingery said. "I just stopped answering their texts. A lot of messages can be sent just by how long you wait to text someone back or not doing it at all. … I know (text messaging) is not good, but it's entertaining."

Though a majority of teens received their cell phones from a parent initially for safety reasons, according to the study, cell phone use has also become a source of conflict between teens and parents, who are trying different methods to wrangle control over cell phones. Some 52 percent of parents, according to the study, limit the times of day their children may use the phone — though teens who text are 42 percent more likely to sleep with their phones tucked under their pillows. Sixty-four percent of parents routinely check the contents of their child's phone, and 62 percent take the phone away as punishment.

As distracted driving, sexting and harassment become more of a concern while teens increase their cell phone use, some parents like Tracy Jones, an employee of Utah State University whose two teenage boys send 5,000-10,000 texts a month, are beginning to wonder if the safety benefits of a cell phone are worth it.

Jones' boys, ages 15 and 17, have only had cell phones for one and two years, respectively, but already they're infatuated. Jones locks the phones from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. each night and randomly checks the texts her boys receive, but still, she wonders what she's missing — and her sons' preoccupation is worrisome.

"The thing that bothers me about the cell phone is that it seems to be all-encompassing, it seems to be the only thing that matters in their life," Jones says.

"It seems it takes over their lives, that sending that next text is almost more important than anything."

e-mail: achoate@desnews.com