Pew Study Examines E-Communication’s Impact on Teens’ Writing

May 16, 2008

Despite living in a world saturated with new technology, much of it able to process words as never before, 60% of teens do not view instant messaging, phone text messaging, e-mail and social network sites as real writing, according to an April 2008 study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project and the National Commission on Writing.

Some teens view their electronic words as nothing more than simple communication, like saying "hi" in the hallway at school or making a phone call. They don’t feel it has made a big difference in the quality of their writing. Only 15% of teens say their internet-based writing has helped their writing skills, 11% say it has harmed them, and a huge 73% say e-writing has made no difference in school writing.

But their parents are seeing their teen’s e-communication differently. Twenty-seven percent of parents feel Internet writing makes their teens better writers, 27% think it makes them poorer writers and 40% feel it makes no difference.

Sixty four percent of teens admit to accidentally allowing some informal writing styles used in electronic communication to show up in their writing for school. Some 38% have used text shortcuts such as "LOL" (laugh out loud), 25% have used emoticons like smiley faces, and 50% have used informal punctuation and grammar in their school writing.

Lauren Crosby, a teen who text-messages two or three times per day for little things, like telling someone she’s going to meet them, finds e-phrases such as LOL end up in notes to friends but never in her school assignments. "I think it’s hard to make a good impression writing ‘LOL’ or ‘BTW.’ My school puts a lot of emphasis on the structure of writing, being able to develop ideas and introductions and conclusions. I think it’s pretty good—though not so helpful in the area of creativity."
Students feel most excited by assigned writing in which they can select topics relevant to their own lives and interests and have the chance to write creatively. In addition, being challenged by adults or teachers, with interesting curricula and being given detailed feedback prompts them to stay excited by their writing. Having an audience helps too.

Some 82% of teens say more in-class writing time would improve their writing abilities. The reality, though, is that 82% say their typical writing assignment is a paragraph to one page in length.

Ninety three percent of the students say they’ve done at least some writing outside of school in the past year. As might be expected, teens who like their non-school writing do not always enjoy school writing; nearly half take pleasure in the writing done outside school "a great deal" as opposed to only 17% who enjoy school writing with a similar passion.

That said, most (86%) believe good writing is important to their future success in life. "Good writing skills are critical if you want to get a point across or demonstrate that you’re educated," says Crosby.

On this point, parents agree, and 83% believe that good writing skills are more important now than they were twenty years ago. Parents are generally more positive than their teens about the effect computers and text-based communication tools have on their writing.

Even with all the technology available, though, teens report that they more often write by hand for both out of school writing and school writing. "When it comes to technology, what I like the most about it is the writing speed," says seventeen-year-old Christy da Rosa. "Plus, I can go back and change something instead of going back to erase. But at the same time I do have to go upstairs, turn on the computer, find the files and get things going before starting, so there’s a chance I will lose my inspiration."

As for the future, Richard Sterling, chair of the advisory board for the College Board's National Commission on Writing has a suggestion for those engaged in teaching writing: "As educators, our challenge is to take students' love for writing and use that affinity to help them to write better. To connect the enthusiasm of young people for informal, technology-based writing with classroom experiences that illuminate the power of well-organized, well-reasoned writing, teachers must have opportunities to learn new approaches, to experiment with the new technologies that fill the lives of students and time to develop and apply comprehensive strategies for using writing in these new contexts."