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wat r u doin? Studying the Thumb Generation Using Text Messaging eszter hargittai and chris karr A relatively recent and sudden change in the landscape of American youth can be seen in the growing numbers of people walking around with their heads looking down and their ‹ngers moving vigorously on a gadget. Cell phones have spread widely, and their use for communication through text messaging has taken off considerably. Is there a way for social scientists to bene‹t from the proliferation of this technology? Can such short messages help us understand human behavior better? We were in the midst of an unrelated study when we suddenly realized that we could piggyback on it to supplement survey questions with timediary data collected using text messaging from college students about their everyday activities. The method of data collection that relies on calling respondents has suffered from declining response rates for years, while more traditional time-diary data collection means (e.g., journaling or beeper studies) have posed their own set of challenges regarding logistics and data quality. We were curious to know if text messaging, a new method of communication already present in many people’s everyday lives, might allow us to improve on existing methods. With this in mind, we decided to add a component to a larger study that was already under way with questions that we believed were worth pursu192 ing even if, in the end, our time-diary data collection ended up being exploratory at best. Overall, we had both methodological and substantive reasons to pursue this new work, and given what was already being invested in the larger project, we decided that the marginal costs were worth our time and effort. In hindsight, we are very happy that we had seized this opportunity , and although it took more time—as it always does!—than we had anticipated, we achieved interesting and unique results that were well worth the investment. At the time we embarked on this research, one of us (Hargittai) was in the midst of working on a two-year project that involved studying adolescents ’ Internet uses, skills, and participation by means of surveys and inperson observations. The study also had a longitudinal component whereby some participants would be randomly assigned into a training program and then observed again at a later point in time—along with those who had not received training—to test whether the intervention had made a difference in students’ online know-how. These parameters meant that some people were already going to be approached for participation more than once. More important, the data that we had begun collecting on respondents could easily be merged with the additional information we were hoping to collect about them through text messaging. Every methodology has its limitations, and we can only learn so much about any topic using just one method. One challenge of surveys—the main method of data collection in the larger study—is that it is hard to gather nuanced and reliable information about the details of people’s everyday time uses. This concern prompted the idea of trying to gather some additional time-diary data from respondents (e.g., Larson and Csikszentmihalyi ; 1983, Robinson 1977). However, given students’ busy lives and the dif‹culty in convincing people to participate in recurring studies, the challenge remained: How do we collect diary data from 18- and 19year -olds who are physically hard to pin down amid their busy college lives? This age group is sometimes referred to as the Thumb Generation, because young adults spend so much time on their cell phones either calling people in their networks or texting them using the dial pad of their phones. Data that one of us (Hargittai) had collected a year earlier about a similar group suggested that most students in the population of the larger study owned cell phones, and many used text messaging. Accordingly, our belief that texting was a popular activity was not simply based on unsubstantiated assumptions but rather, available data. In fact, a look at the survey reWAT R U DOIN? • 193 sponses of the current study’s sample made it clear that over 98 percent owned a cell phone and that over 90 percent of those cell phone owners used the device for text messaging. This gave credence to the idea that collecting diary data through the relatively unobtrusive medium of text messaging might yield helpful information. The method would not require researchers and respondents to be physically copresent...


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