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Ofcom says we prefer to text than talk: Have we turned into soulless robots?

We sent over 150 billion texts in the UK last year. The average consumer taps out 50 SMS messages a week - twice as many as two years ago - and spends another 90 minutes on social network and email accounts. Bear in mind all this activity is recorded outside of work situations and you can see how consumed we are in text-based correspondence.

Moreover, the Ofcom research that uncovered the above found that the time we spent on phone calls in 2011 dropped for the first time ever. This led the regulatory body to conclude that we now actively favour text-based communications over traditional calls and face to face conversations.

But while we’re all aware of our excessive use of digital mediums to talk to one another, exemplified no more profoundly than the ITPP desk’s penchant for instant messenger when talking to a colleague not one metre away, have we really turned into conversation-shy robots afraid to engage properly with those around us?

Delving further into the communications issue is mobile messaging company Acision, which conducted an investigation into our texting behaviour this year alongside psychologist Graham Jones. The survey recorded the habits of 2,000 people of varying ages and backgrounds and unsurprisingly found convenience was the driving force behind text-based communications overtaking calls and conversations in person.

Men in particular would shun a verbal exchange in order to get straight to the point with a functional message, and our gender’s widespread ineptitude at dealing openly with members of the opposite sex sees us three times more likely to use SMS to contact female colleagues, compared to women who are happier to speak to men in person. Cowardice also pushes texting ahead of talking in certain situations, as 15 per cent of mobile users in the UK have resorted SMS to call in sick.

The Acision research also discovered the full extent to which the younger generation affects the texting trend. Soaring above the aforementioned 50-texts-per-week universal average are 18-25 year olds, who send in the region of 133 messages every week – almost double that of any other age category. Be it patronising or accurate, older users reportedly find it more difficult to type with their thumbs, meaning texting is more readily adopted by the technologically dexterous young.

“As mobile and text is a technology that young people have grown up with, they will naturally send more text messages,” says psychologist Jones. “While teens thirty years ago may have phoned their friends as part of growing up and social development, nowadays they send text messages. The social reasons haven’t changed, but the preferred communication method has.”

Jones’ comments ultimately point to text-communication only further displacing verbal, as the generations who grow up around the technology gradually outnumber those who didn’t. Will we become even shyer of that phone call or face to face chat without the older generation around to temper the trend and engage with us personally?

The growing number of instant messaging services further eat into our face to face time and will continue to do so according to Acision. Yet 92 per cent of smartphone users, with all the alternative messaging options available to them, still “rely” on SMS, with 69 per cent going as far as claiming they could not live without it. Highlighting its range of virtues, Jones explains, “Texting […] often elicits an immediate response. Indeed, text messaging could become even more popular as it evolves and is used by more enterprises to reach consumers."

“Additionally, the introduction of a plethora of new messaging services may mean that people may get confused and fall back on the reliable SMS. Running in the back of the human mind is the need to do everything with the least possible effort, and we instinctively search for the easiest way to communicate. This is why we rely on and still love text messaging.”

But does all this really mean that verbal conversations will be thrown on the scrapheap by the modern world? A look at the nuances behind the statistics and hearing how people use text communications in more detail suggests otherwise, and that these voice-free outlets can actually work in tandem with verbal conversations and facilitate more face to face engagement.

A survey of the colourful individuals at ITPP HQ - that also included the reasoning behind people’s decisions to text or call - bore out the wider findings from Acision and Ofcom but showed much of our text communication was to arrange personal meetings, rather than replace them.

80 per cent of respondents did prefer to text rather than call when making an engagement, and 60 per cent would text to briefly catch up with a friend. But in both instances messages were typically kept brief and functional so a proper conversation could be enjoyed at length in the near future. People also favoured conversations with family and texting with friends, as the latter were seen often with face to face time being more plentiful, while phone conversations were preferred for family members that had not been seen in a while.

Despite the average ratio of text to call time coming in at 66 per cent – 44 per cent in favour of texting - there were examples of people almost always electing to call rather than use SMS, regardless of the reason. And these instances belonged to those in the younger age group, who did not reflect the trends of the other studies so strongly.

The nature and purpose of text-based communication among the participants frequently refuted the idea that we are turning into socially inept individuals keen to avert physical interaction. Rather than compromise on traditional behaviour as the Ofcom report suggested, it seems our phones set up more opportunities for verbal communications in our increasingly busy lives. Therefore, somewhat paradoxically, text-communication can actually improve our chances of enjoying face to face or phone conversations in an age when this is becoming increasingly difficult.

So while we can all appreciate Google exec Eric Schmidt’s advice earlier this year to "Take your eyes off that screen and look into the eyes of the person you love," and "have a conversation, a real conversation," perhaps we’re not quite as robotic and soulless as Schmidt and co. believe they have made us. So long as we use our phones and IM programs to support and tee up verbal communication with each other, and not to supplant real interaction, we may have those social skills safely intact for a while yet.