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Parents Use Text Messaging to Keep Tabs on Kids

When it comes to keeping tabs on your children, it's best to be all thumbs.

More and more parents are using text messaging, available on most cell phones, in lieu of phone calls to find out where their children are — and when they might be coming home.

"Kids nowadays, sometimes they're just overwhelmed; they're busy," said October Butler, a mother from New York. "And most of the time, they can't talk, and the best way to communicate is texting."

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Butler chats with her 22-year-old daughter, Sara Chai Butler, everyday.

"I don't think my mom is that good at this stuff, but she figured everything out herself," Chai Butler said. "She texts me all the time now to tell me what she's doing and where she is."

A recent survey commissioned by Cingular Wireless found that 63 percent of parents who text their children find that it improves communication, and 64 percent of parents felt texting made their kids easier to reach.

"It really can be extremely helpful in communicating with many kids," said Ruth Peters, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist from Clearwater, Fla. "A lot of the tweens, teens and college kids are not particularly communicative, and they're awfully hard to get sometimes. Texting really seems to allow the kids to feel more comfortable with getting back to their folks."

The biggest reason that texting is catching on with parents is that it's discreet, Peters said.

"None of the guys especially want to answer 'Hello Mom' to a telephone call," she said. "It's a bit demeaning, but you can text back and nobody knows who you're texting."

Cell phone companies have taken notice. Some offer plans that include unlimited text messaging between family members, while others offer cheats for texting newbies.

T-Mobile's site gives texting customers a shorthand dictionary and Cingular created a texting tutorial for parents, developed by Peters.

"I love [texting] cause I don't have to talk to people," Chai Butler said. "That's what I like about it because a lot of times, I'm really busy and I don't have time to get into a phone conversation — even for small talk. It's just much easier to send a little text message and more casual too."

Butler tends to send longer messages, to the delight of her daughter.

"It saves money, instead of wasting 10 cents on 'OK,'" Chai Butler said.

Many cellular plans charge 10 cents per message, no matter the length.

Kids shouldn't worry that their parents are planning to use texting to intrude on their private lives.

"The parents, the kind of stuff they're texting, it's generally not this big emotional 'How's your life?' 'Are you depressed?'" Peters said. "They want to know 'Will you be home for dinner?' When they get an answer — 'Yes.' 'No.' 'Be home late.' — that's all they really want to know."

Text messages are typically limited for length, so parents who decide to try texting face a lingo learning curve.

For kids, typing "lol" and "gtg" comes as naturally as breathing. To the average parent, the abbreviations for "laugh out loud" and "got to go" look like gobbledygook.

"Kids like the notion of having a private language," said Dr. John Sargent, professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. "So that could make the parents learning how to do text messaging be something that the kids are uncomfortable with because it's their own thing."

If parents approach texting like adults, he said, children will be pretty accepting.

"Anytime parents do stuff that is adolescent in order to 'be cool,' that's a problem, right?" he said. "They kind of look a little foolish."

Sending your kid a text message with a smiley face and good luck wishes for a test or audition is as innocuous as putting a Post-It note of encouragement on a sandwich in his or her lunch sack, Peters said.

And embracing the texting lingo with kids younger than teens might even win brownie points, she said.

"It's worth parents learning any method of communication in order to maintain contact with their kids," Sargent said.

For the Butlers, who also yak on the phone everyday, texting has become an added outlet of communication — albeit a lingo-less one.

"I'm not that spiffy yet," Butler said. "I still type the whole word."

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