WhatsApp Prompts a Renaissance of Writing Among Children. What’s Up With That?

Experts differ on whether texting helps or hinders kids’ ability to communicate in writing.

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Kids with phones.
Kids with phones.Credit: Eyal Toueg

Those who’ve spent substantial time with a telephone receiver wedged between their ear and shoulder would never have guessed that the teenagers of the future would prefer to communicate with one another in writing.

Even back then, writing was an antiquated form of communication, considered romantic and overloaded with meaning. Someone took the time to sit down, write a message, put it an envelope, buy a stamp, and mail it, prompting a response in the same fashion. The process was anything but immediate.

On the other hand, writing could be brief and quick: a scribbled note passed between classmates or a message left on the refrigerator. For routine chats between friends, the phone was always best. More-important, “not-for-the-phone,” discussions warranted face-to-face meets.

But modern technology, primarily smartphones and WhatsApp, has cemented the writing trend.

Even before the advent of the popular text-messaging application, writing came back in style, on social media, text messages, Internet chat and message boards as well as in emails and instant messaging.

But WhatsApp has taken it to a whole new level. The chuckling and giggling that used to emanate from teenagers’ bedrooms have been replaced by the chirping, buzzing and bleeping alerts to newly received WhatsApp messages. Like the bell on a cat’s collar, kids nowadays can be tracked by the sounds of their smartphones.

A sense of control

This phenomenon gives rise to a few questions. Why do children prefer to communicate in writing, and does that preference actually improve their (and many adults’) general ability to express themselves in writing?

(Let’s put aside the fact that many children also record short messages and send them over WhatsApp, and that for some reason this method is also preferred over a regular phone call.)

Atara Ofek, who edits, translates, critiques and writes children’s books and lectures on children’s use of language and literature, says kids prefer to communicate this way because “it affords them privacy and control, which are otherwise elusive during adolescence. ... [Texting] allows them to control the time and style of response, as well as to add any number of decorations that emphasize or detract from the message.

“And most importantly, all this happens as they’re protected, behind a screen, their facial expressions hidden from any onlookers. It’s much easier to come off as cool while texting, and cool is the supreme value.”

But not only is coolness a value. Orna Kazin, a writer and writing teacher, says written communication “opens a space for large groups of children who can’t express themselves fully in speech. It also allows children who are more in tune with their inner spheres to express themselves, children who are otherwise more introverted.

“It creates another option for communication that is full of values. Even if many children don’t utilize it, and many others send messages back and forth immediately, it affords them time to formulate their responses because they have a moment before they send it.

“It helps develop a space for children who have a harder time with oral communication. It allows for a kind of intimate communication, while preserving distance, which is essential.”

Multiple conversations

In any case – whether the children want to be cool, or have a hard time expressing themselves through speech – it can be said that all children text. Writing on a phone (which was once an oxymoron) allows them to conduct many conversations at once, almost competitively, during class at school, during a family dinner or while they’re with their friends.

A phone call focuses on one person; texting on WhatsApp enables one to speak to many others at once. It fulfills our multitasking needs of the modern age — and the short attention spans that come with it.

“It’s not just children. This generation writes more than any other in history,” says Shimon Azoulay, author of a book on modern happiness and one of the authors of the writing program at the Dr. Branco Weiss Institute, which works in education and pedagogy. “No one ever wrote this way, not just chatting, but actual texts, voluntarily.

“In the past, once you finished school, you could go 60 years without writing, unless your profession required it. Today, if you don’t write, you’re not part of the culture. The Facebook world is a democracy, a world of language. No one sees you, they see what you write. What used to be reserved for the few is not available to everyone.

“There is equality in writing on WhatsApp as well. It’s almost like a new kind of literacy. They used to think that television was heralding the end of the age of writing, but it has returned, with a vengeance.”

Facebook is perhaps a democracy, but WhatsApp, which is the preferred space for children, is a world of castes. Every child belongs to a few different groups and communities, and it’s safe to assume that while the contents are hierarchical, the idea of democracy fits there as well. In either case, these groups are comprised of written communication.

Does texting help or hinder?

Again, the question: Does this widespread use of written communication improve their ability to express themselves verbally?

“The answer is not tremendously,” says Atara Ofek. “It has a negative effect. It’s not writing, but rather a code for superficial dialogue, which utilizes emoticons, abbreviations and smileys; LOL and WTF instead of a richer, fuller lexicon.

“In lectures for parents and children about children’s literature and reading, I try to highlight what happens to those who read only newspapers, or subtitles in movies and TV shows, let alone those who read only short messages. All of it is only superficial language, dialogues.

“The smaller and less rich our vocabulary, the less significant the spiritual and emotional aspect of communication becomes, and I believe that an important part of our brain loses the opportunity to develop. If there is no word to describe the feeling, then the feeling won’t exist.”

Teachers from various Israeli schools back up Ofek’s statement. One group of teachers at a Tel Aviv school claims that the use of writing for communication damages their students’ ability to express themselves orally.

“It’s much more constricted and laconic. They even write in initials and abbreviations,” says one teacher. M.A., a grammar teacher at a Jerusalem high school, says many compositions she receives include abbreviations and many exclamation points in place of words.

A literature teacher at a prestigious high school in Rishon Letzion was asked: If children hardly read books but constantly text on WhatsApp, does this generation know how to write but not read? Her answer is firm: “No. ... They don’t know how to read or write.

“They’re good at quickly typing texts with smileys. They’re used to making mistakes on WhatsApp, and those mistakes are found on exams, too. By the way, teachers are guilty, too. We adapt language to the students so they can understand, but that creates a vicious cycle.”

Writing versus writing culture

According to Carmel Weissman, from the general-studies program in humanities at Tel Aviv University, the cases in which students integrate WhatsApp writing into their compositions and exams for school are rare.

“First, what they’re doing isn’t what we call `writing,’” says Weissman, who co-authored a book on “Internet Hebrew” with Ilan Gonen. “Writing and writing culture are two different things.

The fact that they can text from age three doesn’t mean they know how to write, and the fact that they use writing for communication shouldn’t blur the line between writing and writing culture. If they don’t know how to distinguish between the two, the Internet isn’t to blame, but rather the school, or the education system.

“Right, one perception is that because they write that way to communicate, they’ll write that way in compositions, but that’s not always the case,” she says. “In actuality, they have common sense. They know how to write on the Internet — they understand the nuances of writing as it applies to the various technological platforms.”

Azoulay from the Weiss Institute also says all this writing is beneficial.

“Contrary to the image presented by ‘hahaha’ and ‘achhhh’ – and it’s correct to say that there are many conversations like that – complex texts can be found within WhatsApp as well,” he says.

“In addition, when children are given simple guidelines for writing, they uphold them easily. There’s no doubt that there’s a drop in vocabulary. But I’m not someone who believes in the purity of the language. I think that approach is like tyranny of language.

“A text is supposed to work. Today’s children know how to write texts that work. Yes, they aren’t linguistically rich, but that doesn’t really mean anything. They have the ability to create text. They know how to write texts that perform a function in the world, that stand autonomously on their own.

“At school they write texts that aren’t autonomous. It’s a generation that knows to write, perhaps with a less than sufficient amount of words. But as Wittgenstein said, developing language is a way of life.

“So these children perhaps don’t know the difference between longing, yearning, and craving, but they understand the feelings, and express them in their own slang.”

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