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Jerald McNair is a school administrator at South Holland School District 151 in Illinois. He wrote this for the Chicago Tribune.

What is the difference between writing and texting? If you were to pose that question to youths from Generation Alpha — born starting in 2010 — many of them may be hard-pressed to answer. Members of younger generations, including Gen Z, have grown up with cellphones as part of their everyday attire.

It is estimated that more than half of American children own a smartphone by the age of 11, according to a survey conducted by Common Sense Media. By the time they turn 8, about 1 in 5 have their own cellphone.

The wide use and ownership of these devices mean that youths are communicating more. While educators will tell you that allowing children to dialogue and engage at different levels helps their language skills, the type of written communication conducted on mobile devices has the tendency of being more of a hindrance than a benefit to our youths.

Texting is its own language. Online tech dictionary Webopedia lists nearly 1,700 common abbreviations and acronyms used in texting. For members of Generation Alpha, who are at the beginning stages of language development, developing formal writing skills while using text talk creates challenges.

Teachers have explained to me how often they have to correct basic words in their students’ writing because far too many of them use text language in place of formal English. This may seem inconsequential; these youths are many years away from entering the labor force. But if steps are not taken to address this problem, it could present a challenge for our labor force and our economy. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, written communication is a soft skill that is among the skills viewed as fundamental to an employee doing a job effectively. Companies identify writing as one of the essential skills for success in 21st century workers.

An unskilled labor force hurts productivity and compromises an individual’s employment opportunities, which ultimately hurt the economy.

Underdeveloped or poor writing skills may also hinder our youths in effectively communicating their emotions so that adults can understand them. We see the implications of this in the tendency of far too many of our youths expressing themselves through violent acts. Every day, about 360 teens are treated in emergency departments for assault injuries, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2020, suicide was the second leading cause of death for teens 10 to 14.

Do educators and parents miss some of the warning signs because they don’t understand the language that many of our youths are using?

Generation Alpha poses an interesting dilemma — and opportunity — for us all. They are the youngest generation to experience the pandemic that has killed more than 1 million Americans. How it will affect them mentally and emotionally in the long run is still to be determined. So far, data from the CDC shows that it has increased their level of anxiety and depression related to, among other things, the shift from in-person learning to virtual education.

Arguably, this has elevated the importance of technology and the devices at their fingertips. Getting them to put down their devices and engage in conversations is a challenge. But there is an opportunity to shape their mindset because they are young and still impressionable.

Doing so requires putting limits on cellphone use, engaging with them in more face-to-face communication and having them use that time away from their devices to use more formal language skills, both orally and written. Restricting texting to a certain level could help as they develop formal language skills.

Texting is here to stay. What can’t become our new normal is allowing our youths to supplant formal language skills with ever-evolving faddish language.

The youngest members of our nation have seen and experienced things we never thought possible. How do we help them navigate through these unprecedented times? First, by keeping communication open and readily embracing dialogue. Allowing Generation Alpha too much texting time threatens that and hurts us all.

Our future generations need us to make hard decisions for them. They are depending on us to get this right.