A few years ago, I regularly heard parents complaining of $200 or $300 cell phone bills racked up by their texting teen’s overages. In nearly every frustrated conversation these parents would exclaim, “How many text could they possibly be sending a day?!” Since then parents have discovered the joy of the unlimited texting plan as texting has only increased in popularity. Over 40% of teens today say they use their phone primarily for texting rather than for phone calls. While many who work with teens and tweens have long been concerned about issues surrounding texting, such as texting while driving or sexting, we may also have some new research to consider when it comes to texting and risky behavior.

Research from Case Western Reserve University released recently indicates a link between teens who send more than 120 texts a day and risky behavior. In a survey of more than 4,000 students in 20 urban high schools in Ohio, teens dubbed hyper-texters were 40% more likely to have tried cigarettes, 43% more likely to be binge drinkers and 41% more likely to have tried illicit drugs than the teens who did not text as much. Hyper-texters were also more likely to have been in a physical fight, 3.5 times more likely to have had sex and 90% more likely to report four or more sexual partners. They found a similar connection between risky behavior and students who spend more than three hours a day on social networking sites, or hyper-networkers. Along with risky behavior, these hyper behaviors were also linked with an increased likelihood of stress, depression, suicides, poor sleep, poor academics, and parental permissiveness.

One in five students was identified as a hyper-texter and one in nine students was a hyper-networker with about one in 25 falling into both categories. Hyper-texting and hyper-networking were more common in girls, minorities, single parent families without fathers, and in lower socioeconomic statuses. However, the association between the hyper-texting and hyper-networking and risky behaviors continued to hold true even when the study controlled for some of these environmental variables.

There is an important point to be made as we consider this research. Correlation does not equate causation. The researchers themselves point out that hyper-texting and hyper-networking are not causes of risky behavior. Teens who hyper-text or hyper-network may be the students who are already overly impulsive, looking to be hyper-social and are therefore more susceptible to peer pressure. Study author Scott Frank told the New York Times, “It does make sense that these technologies make it easier for kids to fall into a trap of working too hard to fit in. If they’re working that hard to fit in through their social networks, they’re also trying to fit in through other behaviors they perceive as popular, like smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol, having sex and getting involved in higher-risk adolescent behaviors.” There is also a strong connection between the hyper-behaviors and a lack of parental oversight. Again, Scott Frank said, “If parents are monitoring their kids’ texting and social networking, they’re probably monitoring other activities as well.”

We want all the teens and tweens we work with to live in safe, healthy, and especially God-pleasing ways. In a world where social lives are lived in text and are networked online, we have to look for indicators of risky behavior where they are, not just where we encounter them. Just as we identify at-risk students in school and at youth programming, we have to be aware of the students who are at-risk based on their use of technology. This is a wake up call for youth leaders and for parents that we have to help students who are already socially susceptible develop skills that help them avoid dangerous behavior, rather than allowing them to text and network unchecked and unassisted.

I have students who have friended me on Facebook, who I can tell by their usage are the types of students described in this study. While I can’t spend my life on Facebook monitoring these students, when I see usage that makes me concerned I can take steps to try and head off issues before they arise. For example, I jumped into a conversation on one of my youth’s wall that was discussing if he should fight with another boy at school. I simply commented that not only did I not think it was a great idea, but that as a Christian he was supposed to turn the other cheek. Surprisingly, his response to me was positive rather than negative. I have even printed screen shots of Facebook for parents, and discussed how they can better monitor their teen’s use of social networking.

We must equip parents with skills to talk about faith within their home, and that includes talking with them about risky behaviors and peer pressure. Giving parents these skills and encouraging them to monitor their teens’ texting and networking. Parents are the first line of defense when it comes to discussing both why we as Christians are called to avoid these risky behaviors as lights to the world, and the grace that can be received when we fall short.