Send this to your family next time they want to chat.
I absolutely hate talking on the phone. I attribute my phone-phobia to my glory days as a receptionist, when the sound of a phone ringing would elicit in me a Pavlovian response, causing my blood pressure to rise and my will to live to plummet. When given the option, I prefer to text rather than talk—unless, of course, we’re talking about group texts. Because the only thing I hate more than talking on the phone is getting caught up in a group text gone rogue.
Ever since Apple rolled out iOS version 1.1.3 in 2008, group text chains have become an increasingly divisive topic. On one hand, they’re inarguably useful, allowing people to keep in near-constant contact with family and friends. On the other hand, they’re disruptive and unproductive—and do we really want to be in near-constant contact with family and friends?
Why the buzzing makes us cringe
I reached out to psychotherapist Nicole Amesbury, Head of Clinical Development for the online therapy service Talkspace. She told me that personality type plays a huge role in why people hate group texting. For people like me, who become unreasonably stressed by unread push notifications, group texting can increase already-existing anxiety. Heavy texting also has been demonstrated to affect sleep: A 2013 study conducted by Washington and Lee University discovered that the more first-year college students texted, the more likely they were to experience difficulty sleeping.
But Amesbury also points out that for people with social anxiety, group texting can be a useful and therapeutic tool. She says, “One of the reasons that group texting works is because it can give the person with anxiety a great deal of freedom and control in how they participate, which is empowering. This [can be] used as a springboard to off-line situations in a way where fears are tackled with varying levels of exposure.”
Ultimately, Amesbury believes that the quality of a person’s group text experience is predicated on the following variables: the content of the messages, the people in the group text and the platform the group is using.
An informal poll conducted among several of my friends supports this hypothesis. Everyone I talked to said group texting works best when everyone in the group knows each other, when the group is working toward a common goal, like arranging a time to meet up, and when everyone in the group stays on message. Of course, anyone who has ever participated in a group text knows that this is rarely the case.
I’m currently on a text chain with a group of my old coworkers. We’ve spent months trying to plan a time to meet up and grab dinner. That’s all we text about; our relationship now consists of planning to have a relationship. And in all likelihood, we probably never will meet up for that dinner. But taking the time to pretend like we will feels social and satisfying.
Con: Texting as emotional burnout
Except, according to social psychologist and MIT professor Sherry Turkle, electronic communication is not actually all that emotionally fulfilling. In 2012, Turkle gave a Ted Talk called “Connected But Alone.” During her speech, Turkle basically confirmed all my suspicions about group texting; namely, that we’re texting too much and our electronic exchanges are leaving us ill-prepared for meaningful human conversations.
According to Turkle, “Constant connection is changing the way people think of themselves. It’s shaping a new way of being…we use technology to define ourselves by sharing our thoughts and feelings, even as we’re having them.”
And Turkle worries that this is a major problem. When we spend all day talking to each other over text, we don’t give ourselves time to reset and recharge. And we need this solitude, this time to check in with our feelings, in order to maintain our emotional equilibrium and build meaningful relationships. As convenient as group texts are for keeping in touch, in reality, they’re causing our relationships to suffer in the long term.
Pro: Texting as ever-present social safety net
But even psychologists can’t agree on whether or not texting is messing with our ability to connect. Amesbury believes that the positive psychological benefits of group texting outweigh the negative, arguing:
“Human evolution shows very clearly that our brains evolved in a social context so that we develop the ability to give and receive emotional support and care through social means. Both neuroscience and evolutionary theory support that we interact socially as a means to improve our well-being. Whether this is done via text or in face-to-face interactions is not as important as how and what we choose to share with others.”
In other words, it’s better to connect through text than to never connect at all. And for those moments when the buzzing just won’t stop, there’s always the mute button. All hail the sweet, humble mute button.