This surprising, everyday tool might hold the key to changing human behavior

Pay attention to the world around you
Pay attention to the world around you
Image: REUTERS/Tomas Bravo
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

To be a person in the modern world is to worry about your relationship with your phone. According to critics, smartphones are making us ill-mannered and sore-necked, dragging parents’ attention away from their kids, and destroying an entire generation.

But phones don’t have to be bad. With 4.68 billion people forecast to become mobile phone users by 2019, nonprofits and social science researchers are exploring new ways to turn our love of screens into a force for good. One increasingly popular option: Using texting to help change human behavior.

Texting: A unique tool

The short message service (SMS) was invented in the late 1980s, and the first text message was sent in 1992. (Engineer Neil Papworth sent “merry Christmas” to then-Vodafone director Richard Jarvis.) In the decades since, texting has emerged as the preferred communication method for many, and in particular younger generations. While that kind of habit-forming can be problematic—47% of US smartphone users say they “couldn’t live without” the device—our attachment to our phones also makes text-based programs a good way to encourage people to make better choices.

“Texting, because it’s anchored in mobile phones, has the ability to be with you all the time, and that gives us an enormous flexibility on precision,” says Todd Rose, director of the Mind, Brain, & Education Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “When people lead busy lives, they need timely, targeted, actionable information.”

And who is busier than a parent? Text-based programs can help current or would-be moms and dads with everything from medication pickup to childhood development. Text4Baby, for example, messages pregnant women and young moms with health information and reminders about upcoming doctor visits. Vroom, an app for building babies’ brains, sends parents research-based prompts to help them build positive relationships with their children (for example, by suggesting they ask toddlers to describe how they’re feeling based on the weather). Muse, an AI-powered app, uses machine learning and big data to try and help parents raise creative, motivated, emotionally intelligent kids. As Jenny Anderson writes in Quartz: “There is ample evidence that we can modify parents’ behavior through technological nudges.”

Research suggests text-based programs may also be helpful in supporting young children’s academic and cognitive development. For a working paper (not yet peer-reviewed) that was distributed by the National Bureau of Economic Research this month, a team of researchers ran an eight-month text-messaging pre-kindergarten program for parents of four-year-olds in Dallas, Texas, during the 2015-2016 school year. Parents were texted suggestions of activities, such as listening to and singing songs with their kids, or pointing out the letters of their child’s name on street signs. These are small things parents can do to support their child’s literacy skills and cognitive development, and to build a positive parent-child relationship via “serve and return” interactions—those that involve bond-building activities like singing, talking, and reading.

Crucially, the intervention wasn’t time- or resource-intensive for parents; as the researchers point out, the idea was to “merely add an additional step in their established parent-child interactions” by turning bath time or the daily commute into a learning opportunity. The study found that the ideal frequency of text reminders was three per week.

Text therapy

Texts aren’t just being used to help out parents. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have also used them to encourage civic participation in kids and young adults. Open Progress, for example, has an all-volunteer community called “text troop” that messages young adults across the US, reminding them to register to vote and helping them find their polling location.

Text-based programs are also useful in the field of nutrition, where private companies and public-health organizations have embraced them as a way to give advice on healthy eating and weight loss. The National Cancer Institute runs a text-based program called SmokefreeTXT that sends US adults between three and five messages per day for up to eight weeks, to help them quit smoking.

Texting programs can be a good way to nudge people toward improving their mental health, too. Crisis Text Line, for example, was the first national 24/7 crisis-intervention hotline to conduct counseling conversations entirely over text. As Alice Gregory writes in The New Yorker, texting can be a therapeutic medium through which to discuss difficult emotional problems:

The act of writing, even if the product consists of only a hundred and forty characters composed with one’s thumbs, forces a kind of real-time distillation of emotional chaos. A substantial body of research confirms the efficacy of writing as a therapeutic intervention, and although tapping out a text message isn’t the same as keeping a diary, it can act as a behavioral buffer, providing distance between a person and intense, immediate, and often impulsive feelings. Communication by text message is halting and asynchronous, which can be frustrating when you’re waiting for a reply but liberating when you don’t want to respond.

Harvard’s Todd Rose says those insights ring true, adding that the “value proposition for texting isn’t limited to texting.” While there are downsides to discussing mental health in this format—quality control and accessibility among them—text-based programs such Crisis Text Line or Talkspace have proliferated because they aim to help people in an affordable and direct way. There’s also something to be said for the liberating nature of texts; precisely because texting facilitates a level of emotional distance, such messages can be useful when trying to deal with personal or private issues.

Texting is useful for positive nudging in part because our phones are always with us. But texting is successful at positive nudging because it takes advantage of our smartphones’ ubiquity without exploiting it. A person calling us up constantly with reminders might be annoying or intrusive. But an opt-in program that gives us the information we need, when we need it and without much disruption, feels like a choice we’ve made to benefit our future selves. That’s why text-based programs have the potential to re-shape human behavior, one little green bubble at a time.