Texting gets a bad rap. It’s blamed for everything from fostering social isolation to increasing teens’ risk of ADHD to driving down adolescent self-esteem to damaging the spine – a phenomenon known as “text neck.”

But some technological and medical experts say the negativity is unfair and overblown. Texting can and should be a positive force in people’s lives, both in terms of emotional and physical health, they say – so long as it’s used correctly.

“I have a reputation as sort of being the Darth Vader of anything that has to do with texting,” said MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle, author of “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age.” “Which, of course, is not really what I have said or am saying – the problem really isn’t that people have this new, interesting, intimate way of touching base . . . the trouble is what happens to face-to-face conversation if your phone is always there.”

If done well, Turkle and other experts said, texting can improve interpersonal relationships, help people deal with traumatic events and bridge intergenerational gaps. Research backs this up: A 2012 study conducted by psychologists at the University of California at Berkeley found that sending and receiving text messages boosted texters’ moods when they were feeling upset or lonely.

There are also medical applications: Texting eases communication with personal doctors, advances research as an easy and accurate way of gathering patient information in scientific studies, and can offer support to at-risk or suicidal individuals via instant-response crisis text lines. Eric Topol, digital health expert and executive vice president of the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif., admitted he’s not a huge fan of texting – but said even he has been forced to acknowledge its benefits.

“I’m not a big texter, (but) I also recognize it has many attributes for promoting health,” he said.


It all comes down to when and how you text, according to Turkle and Tchiki Davis, who holds a doctorate in psychology and studies, writes and consults on well-being technology. Both said there’s one cardinal rule of texting: Don’t do it when you’re around other people.

If you’re out to dinner with friends, put your phone away and keep it out of sight, Turkle said. Even leaving the phone – turned off and facedown – visible on the table will make conversations more trivial and will reduce the possibility of “empathetic communication,” Turkle said. She warned some people use texting to avoid difficult face-to-face interactions.

“Don’t let it turn you away from the necessary vulnerability you need to feel in relationships,” Turkle said. “Is texting keeping me away from a necessary conversation? If not, enjoy.”

It’s better to refrain from texting even around total strangers, Davis said. She mentioned what she called a classic scenario – when commuting home from work at the end of a long day, people whip out their phones and disappear into their screens, ignoring their fellow passengers on the bus or the subway.

“The research would suggest you would get more out of your experience if you try to interact with strangers – a whole body of research shows we can improve your well-being even through just tiny interactions with strangers,” Davis said. “Basically, anytime you’re with another person, I would recommend keeping your phone off or on silent.”

Once you’re completely and truly alone, go ahead and break out your phone, Turkle and Davis said – but be thoughtful about who and what you text. Run through your roster of friends and family and consider who might be feeling lonely or confronting a difficult situation. Then shoot them a message.

And if you yourself are struggling, texting a loved one is a great way to handle it, Davis said.

“Studies have shown that people who text and reach out to others experience less pain,” Davis said. “It can be used to cope and just kind of deal with challenging situations. Do reach out to others if you’re alone and need support.”

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