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“Our Society Has Gone Mad With Texting”

The title quote is a reaction to a recent press release from Nielsen:

If it seems like American teens are texting all the time, it’s probably because on average they’re sending or receiving 3,339 texts a month. That’s more than six per every hour they’re awake – an 8 percent jump from last year.

So I said to myself, “Hmm. I wonder if by ‘average’ they mean the mean or the median–you know, given the fact that texts per month is likely to be an extremely skewed distribution and the mean would just happen to distort central tendency in a direction favorable to moral panic narratives of teens and digital media.”

So I wrote to Nielsen. Here’s what they wrote back:

I received your question about the mean vs. median number of texts that teens sent in Q2 2010.  The 3,339 number is the mean, and the median is 1,950 texts per month.

The median texts sent or received per month is 58% of the mean. (For comparison, median household income in 2005 was 73% of the mean.) That’s some pretty significant skew there.

Surely some enterprising journalist has done his or her job and contacted Nielsen in the same manner I did?

No? Okay. I wonder what happens if I search for 3,339 texts per month.

Not only has this misleading statistic been parroted some 160,000 times, but the top five results (and eight of the top ten) all forgot to read the actual press release.

…on average they’re sending or receiving 3,339 texts a month.

So, to recap, if you read CNN or Mashable, or watched Brian Williams last night, you heard that the average teen sends six texts per waking hour. But accounting for the inclusion of received texts and more statistically sound use of the median, the average teen actually sends or receives three texts per waking hour.

Furthermore, this assumes that texts are evenly distributed while one is awake. I don’t know about everyone else, but I tend to have text conversations–wherein several texts are exchanged in a short period of time.

If you further account for the uneven distribution of texts during the day, it’s more like the average teen sends or receives nine texts in fifteen minutes, and then none for the next two hours and forty-five minutes.



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