The digital age has given us many ways to connect, but the hailstorm of chatter has only made life more complicated.
Anne Groton used to stick notes in her boys' lunchboxes, snippets of encouragement or -- how embarrassing -- an "I love you."
Now, with her two older sons in high school, the Minnetonka mom has embraced the boys' preferred way of communicating. She sends text messages.
"Every once in a while, you get one back: 'Have a great day, Mom!'" Groton said. "When people talk about teenagers being so difficult to talk to, I'm not feeling that at all. We have these multiple ways to reach them."
If you neglect to pick up a ringing phone, the digital era dictates that there are plenty of options for getting in touch. Figuring out who prefers what and when determines who's in the loop and who's in the dark.
"There's a whole calculus involved," said Aaron Smith, a research associate with the Pew Internet & American Life Project.
Miss a message on Facebook and miss the party. Leave a message in the wrong place -- voice mail, really? -- and wonder why you don't hear from family members and friends. Just ask Jay-Z, who reportedly got into a tiff with Robert DeNiro last month because he didn't return the actor's phone calls. (The rap star apparently prefers texting.)
Which option people pick boils down to circumstance, and in many cases, generational differences.
Pew's research shows that younger Americans gravitate toward texting. A 2011 study found that people ages 18 to 24 sent or received an average of 50 texts per day. Those ages 45 to 54 -- their parents -- sent or received an average of six.
More broadly, Pew found that almost a third of Americans who use text messaging would rather receive a text than a phone call. Yet the heaviest users of text messaging also made the most phone calls.
People aren't necessarily dropping one kind of conversation for another, Smith said. They're just piling more on. Once chatty, always chatty, no matter the limits of an iPhone battery.
Skip the voice mail
Jenny Collins, 29, of St. Paul, said her choices depend on the timing and how much really needs to be said.
"You text people when they are at work. You don't call them," she said. "If you're calling during the day on a cellphone, whether it's family or friends it means something is wrong or something is urgent."
Mary Shutt of Burnsville sends texts to reach her four college-aged kids because, she said, "Rarely will I call and get ahold of them."
As for leaving a voice mail? One of her sons specifically told her not to.
"You have to understand their preferred way of communication," said Linda Schwefel of Minnetonka, who works for Insights, a company that teaches communication tactics for different personality types. "The hiccup that we have now with technology is that everybody assumes that everybody is OK with receiving a text or an e-mail."
With her friends, Shutt said, planning outings for her book club often starts via e-mail. Her daughter, Annie, an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, balked at such a tactic: "I don't think I have most of my friends' e-mail [addresses]."
Instead, she said, she uses Twitter and Skype to keep tabs on her pals, especially those going to school elsewhere.
"I feel like I'm more with them if I can see where they are or what they're doing," she said.
For University of Minnesota student Sean O'Toole, 21, the bulk of the friendly chatter happens on Facebook, which he checks 20 to 25 times a day from his phone or computer. How he uses the site and its instant messaging feature depends on who he is trying to reach.
"With close friends from high school, it will be wall posts," he said. "If it's with friends from Japan it's all chat."
How much is that data plan?
The shift from using cellphones as, well, phones, to pocket-sized Internet devices hasn't been lost on the telecommunications industry. One mobile analyst recently noted the first-ever decline in average text messages sent per month, from 696 to 678, citing the increased use of other smartphone chatting apps.
If proof is in the pricing, consider that monthly minutes for talking are now less restricted while customers pay more for data plans that enable the online activity.
Ascan Koerner, an associate professor of communication studies at the University of Minnesota, said researchers are still exploring what effect different modes of communication -- often yielding more constant contact --may have on relationships.
For example, Koerner said, it's common for many of today's college students to communicate with their parents seven or eight times a day, usually by text message, instead of maybe once a week by phone as in the past. Their parents' advice for almost any question is at their fingertips.
"With texting in particular, there is an expectation that you respond immediately," he said. "That gives very little room for teenagers, or even young adults, to be without parental control."
Granted, today's endless conversations via text or social media often come in bite-sized bursts, and there's no definitive research yet on whether it's actually bringing us closer together. "The jury is still out on that," Koerner said.
Texting from 10 feet away
Lori McCloskey of Minnetonka is among those with mixed feelings. She texts frequently with her two teenage daughters, even tapping out messages to summon them to the dinner table from elsewhere in the house.
But she has also been known to collect everyone's smartphones in a basket to shift the focus from many fragmented mobile conversations to the one in the living room.
"I think it's helpful and efficient and a great way to communicate, but I think it sort of interferes with life," McCloskey said. "I get worn down sometimes."
Still, she said she is happy to feel tech-savvy and connected to her daughters' digital banter. Lately, she said, they've been using a smartphone app called Snapchat to send pictures of themselves with short messages attached.
"They just thought it was so cool I was willing to do it once," McCloskey said. "Her friends think I'm really hip, when I'm not hip at all."
Katie Humphrey • 612-673-4758