Teens who are getting into trouble might leave digital clues to their wayward behavior in text messages, a new study shows.
A group of researchers gave BlackBerry devices and service plans to 172 American high-school freshmen from 47 different schools and told the students their texts would be monitored. After a year, the researchers had compiled an archive of nearly 6 million texts. They examined four days' worth of messages from each participant.
Most of the teens' texts were innocuous, but the researchers focused on the small portion (less than 2 percent) of the messages that involved deviant deeds. [10 Facts Every Parent Should Know about Their Teen's Brain]
"We examined how discussing antisocial behavior — substance abuse, property crimes, physical aggression, that sort of thing — how discussing that predicts actually engaging in this problem behavior," Samuel Ehrenreich, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Texas, Dallas, said in a statement. "Basically, does talking about bad behavior predict bad behavior?"
The teens were ranked before and after the school year for rule-breaking and aggressive tendencies by their parents, teachers and in their own self reports. (In the self-reporting questionnaires, the participants had to rate items that applied to them, such as, "I skip school," "I stay out at night when I am not supposed to," "I break into houses, buildings, or cars.")
Ehrenreich and colleagues found a strong link between exchanging texts about bad behavior and an increase in antisocial and aggressive acts by the end of the school year.
Teens are famous for being easily influenced by their peers, and texting could be a powerful avenue for peer influence, the researchers said. The teens in the study sent an average of 60 texts per day and a majority admitted texting during class.
"We know that peers are really influential in an adolescent's development," Ehrenreich explained in a statement. "We also know that peer influence can lead to antisocial behavior at times, and this form of communication provides a new opportunity for peer influence."
"Texting is instantaneous, far reaching and it has these unique characteristics that make it all the more powerful, and this provides a new opportunity for peer influence," Ehrenreich said. Texting also allows teens to talk about deviant topics in plain sight without adult supervision, the researcher added.
While Ehrenreich said texting may warrant more parental monitoring and stricter limits on students' ability to text at school, he noted that not all teen texting is bad. The study's collection of messages also found that texting could be a positive force for adolescents.
"Texting is meaningful, and within the archive we also saw positive, meaningful communications," Ehrenreich said. "We saw a lot of really heartfelt encouragement that goes on, on the spot, when the students needed it. I think there is a lot that's both good and bad, just like any other form communication."
The research was detailed online this week in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology.