Study: Students ‘Don’t Call, Just Text’

A study on USF students finds a preference for mobile messaging over face-to-face communication. ORACLE PHOTO / ADAM MATHIEU

Preston Williams, originally from St. Augustine, Florida, moved to Tampa to attend USF. He used to drive to St. Augustine every other week to visit his mother, but now, he almost always texts her instead. 

There are no more occasional face-to-face visits, unless it’s a holiday, and to Williams, this is simply the most efficient way of communication. 

“It’s easy, it’s fast, and I can talk to my mom anytime I want,” he said. 

Williams is not alone in this preference. 

Lloyd Pettegrew, a professor in the USF Department of Communication, and Carolyn Day, assistant professor in the Department of Communication at the Savannah College of Art & Design, recently conducted the first research study to confirm the trend previous studies have already suggested — the way humans communicate is shifting. 

Rather than communicating in person, the study found people choose to communicate through mobile technologies such as texting and messaging apps. 

The published study “Don’t Call, Just Text” involved 526 USF communication and mass communication students, ranging from those in basic introductory courses to advanced senior-level classes. The students were given a 31-item questionnaire that mainly asked about their mobile technology use and the impact of mobile technology on their relationships with friends, family and significant others. 

The two researchers chose to survey communication students in order to purposefully bias the results in favor of face-to-face communication over mobile messaging. They reasoned the students’ knowledge of the impact of mobile messaging on society, as well as the importance of in-person communication, would produce less dramatic results than expected.

Despite this handicap, the study found more than three-fourths of the surveyed students believed mobile messaging greatly or moderately alters the way they communicate with their friends.

More than a fourth of the students said the ability to keep in constant touch and have instant feedback helps them develop close relationships, and 17 percent said mobile messaging makes communicating quicker and easier. Almost one in three students said they spend two to three hours a day texting friends, and 6 percent said they spend more than 10 hours a day doing so.

When romantic partners are concerned, only 27 percent said messaging a romantic partner is not better than face-to-face communication. Though 23 percent preferred mobile communication because they can always communicate with their partners when they are apart, another 13 percent said messaging makes them less nervous or more confident, and 3 percent said it helps to avoid face-to-face conflicts.

A small percentage of respondents had mixed answers, with 5 percent preferring messaging to be more risqué privately or sext, and one respondent stated, “I could always choose not to respond so she has no opportunity to nag at me.”

The most significant reason students gave for why mobile messaging is better with a romantic partner is that it allows them to communicate while they are away from their significant other.

“We found that young people rely on phones heavily in developing relationships and intimate relationships,” Pettegrew said. 

The study was the largest ever done on the subject, and Pettegrew said one of the reasons he conducted the research was to shock other communication experts who still believe direct person-to-person communication is more popular than mobile messaging. Although Pettegrew believes his research is accurate, he understands it doesn’t necessarily mean everyone shares this preference, and students at USF have mixed reactions about this study.

Freshman Angela Ferguson said texting instead of talking face-to-face isn’t enough to maintain a relationship. Ferguson said texting is slow, and she becomes impatient awaiting a response. The results of the study, however, don’t surprise her.

“I’ve been texting since middle school, so it’s nothing surprising to me that the results came out the way they did,” she said. 

Other students disagreed, and marketing major Mariya Topchy said texting is the easiest and most upfront way to communicate with someone. She said unlike speaking to someone in person, texting provides the simple option to reply to someone or ignore them.

Some students had a stronger reaction to this study, and graduate student Bethany Loya said if this trend continues, she thinks it’s not unreasonable for a person with a preference for mobile messaging to become depressed and lonely. 

“Sure, people are going to be more connected than ever, but they’ll also be more lonely than ever,” she said.

Graduate student Magdala Saint-Louis agreed and added that staying connected over text “creates an illusion that you are surrounded by people.” 

In the study’s conclusion, Pettegrew and Day write that the study suggests mobile technology is entirely replacing or at least competing with face-to-face interactions. While many students surveyed recognized the addictive nature and emotional limitations of mobile technology, they still admitted to using it often and more so than regular conversation.

The researchers write that mobile technology is having a significant effect on today’s average public space and social behavior, and this trend may call for a different view of modern communication processes and how they operate when analyzed in future studies.