TOPEKA — You probably already think teens text a lot. But just how much might surprise you.
"I don't call people anymore. I just text them," said Kelly Truong, 17, of Valley Center. "You don't have that awkward silence like you do on the phone."
Truong said she sends about 1,000 text messages a day.
Truong's texting rate is on the high end, but a study released by the Pew Research Center last week showed that teens are more likely to communicate with their friends via cell phone than face to face.
Adapting to cell phones' increasing popularity — about 75 percent of teens have them now — is an ongoing challenge for officials. State legislators last year banned cell phone use for younger drivers and now is considering a texting ban for all drivers.
One in three teens sends 100 text messages a day — or about 3,000 messages a month, the study showed. Half of teens between 12 and 17 send 50 messages or more a day, about 1,500 messages monthly. Fifteen percent send more than 200 messages a day.
Gabbie Manuel, 16, also of Valley Center, said she texts all day every day.
"I don't call anybody, not even my mom," she said.
Until a few years ago, the Wichita school district banned cell phones and pagers from school property, said Denise Wren, assistant superintendent of high schools for the district.
"About two to three years ago, we realized it was a battle we weren't going to win," she said.
Now, students can carry their cell phones with them but are not to have them out in the classroom, she said.
In many ways, the challenges that cell phones pose — as distractions or tools for bullying, bonding or even cheating on tests — are the same problems teachers have always faced, she said. Texting is a modern version of passing handwritten notes during class or gossiping during gym.
"It's the same problem, just in a different way," she said.
The Wichita district's main concern is the distractions that cell phones cause for students, Wren said.
"The disruption isn't just noise. It is being engaged with the teacher and the process," Wren said. "The bottom line is: Can you as a student be focused on the process if you are texting?"
The district wants to use its rules to teach students when it is, and is not, appropriate to use cell phones, she said.
Cell phone habits
Teaching good cell phone habits is part of the reason the state's graduated driver's license, which began Jan. 1, bars novice drivers from using a cell phone — including texting — while driving.
"In that introductory period where you are still learning the rules of the road, you don't need distractions," said Chris Bortz, assistant traffic safety manager for Kansas Department of Transportation.
Teens now have to be 17 before they can receive an unrestricted driver's license. But anyone with a permit prior to Jan. 1 was grandfathered in under the old regulations.
That means current 17-year-olds and many 16-year-olds — those who the study showed were most likely to text and communicate via cell phone — have learned to drive without any restrictions on cell phone use.
Eventually, a ban may apply to everyone. The state Senate has passed two measures that would bar all drivers from texting while they are driving. The proposals would make a first-time infraction a traffic violation. The measures are in the House awaiting action.
This year, the Wichita Mayor's Youth Council tackled the topic of distracted driving and urged lawmakers to pass a texting ban for all drivers and to also bar drivers from talking on their phones.
"With constant advances in technology, we can no longer ignore these devices' effects on us," wrote Drew Papadelis, mayor of the youth council. "One lamentable effect is something we witness everyday — drivers veering between lanes while talking or texting on their cell phone."
Bortz, the KDOT official, said he is optimistic that lawmakers will pass a texting ban for all drivers when they return for a veto session Wednesday.
Texting while driving
Robert Foss, senior research scientist at the Highway Safety Research Center at University of North Carolina, said that although there is a benefit in training young drivers not to use cell phones while driving, a ban on texting for all drivers would be more effective.
"The broader the coverage on something like this, the more chance of an immediate impact," Foss said.
About half of states ban cell phone use by teen drivers, but there is no information yet to show how the rules have affected accident rates, he said.
"This is not going to change overnight but it is going to change the discussion and mind set," Foss said.
The change would be similar to seat belts, which most people have grown accustomed to using in part due to laws requiring their use, Foss said.
Truong, the Valley Center teen, thinks a law to stop texting is a good idea.
"I don't think it's safe. I just do it," she said. "Sometimes I'll catch myself getting distracted while I'm texting. I wake up, and I'm in a different spot. That's not good.
"If I got a ticket for it, I'd probably stop," she said.
Even now, some teens who are habitual texters don't do it while driving.
Jack Delmar, 16, Rose Hill, said he texts frequently. His in-box holds 200 messages, and he has to empty it six times a day.
But he said he takes care to have a friend in the passenger seat pick up his phone to relay messages if he has to communicate with somebody while driving.
"I'm not going to get into a dangerous wreck and have it be my fault," Delmar said.
But he knows friends who do text while driving, including one who nearly struck his car on a dirt road while using his elbows to steer while texting.
"If I hadn't hit my horn, he probably would have nailed me," Delmar said.