- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 12, 2001


"Isn't it crazy?"





Most adults have no idea what this conversation is about, but to the rapidly growing number of teens who use online instant-messaging programs, this interchange makes perfect sense.

Uncertainty about instant messaging (IM) is causing concern among many parents who are clueless about how the technology works, how safe it is and to whom their children are talking for large amounts of time.

America Online and Microsoft both have their own IM programs — AOL Instant Messenger and MSN Messenger Service — that anyone can download for free. These programs allow computer users to type and send messages over the Internet that appear immediately on recipients' computer screens.

People who download America Online's IMs can talk to each other directly for as long as they are online, but they cannot talk to people with Microsoft's IMs, and vice versa. The current leading IM device is AOL's, which has more than 100 million users, says Jane Lennon, an AOL spokeswoman. Microsoft's IM device has 36 million users, says Microsoft representative Kim Merritt.

The growing popularity of these technologies has led to an entire IM subculture among online teens.

Thirteen-year-old Margaret Rega of Gaithersburg and her friends use the abbreviations "G2G" (got to go), brb (be right back), TTYL (talk to you later) and lol (laugh out loud) in their conversations. Teens also send "emoticons," or little faces with smiles, frowns or winks, to express their feelings.

Margaret, one of many teens who spend hours at a time sending IMs to people, says she uses IM more than the phone to communicate. She has 40 people on her AOL Instant Messenger "buddy list," which includes the screen names of all her friends, so she can send direct messages to them. Almost everyone in her eighth-grade class uses IMs, the teen says.

"It's a good way to talk to people," she says.

About 17 million youths ages 12 through 17 use the Internet, representing 73 percent of those in that age bracket, according to a study about teens and the Internet released last month by the Pew Internet & American Life project. The survey reflects interviews with 754 youths between ages 12 and 17 and 754 of their parents. Though just 44 percent of online adults have used IMs, 74 percent of online teens use IMs, and one-fifth of them use IMs more than the phone, according to the study.

Many parents feel uninformed when it comes to the Internet and instant messaging. Sixty-six percent of parents say teens know more about the Internet than they do, and 64 percent of online teens agree, according to the Pew study. The less online experience parents have, the more they worry about their children using the Internet, the study adds.

Parents also struggle with the amount of time their children spend on the Internet. Margaret says her mother tells her to go outside and play if she has been on the computer too long. The Pew study notes that while 55 percent of parents think the Internet is a good thing, 67 percent fear that it keeps their children from doing more important things.

Jordan Williams, 16, of Highland says the Internet steals "a few hours a day" from her family time. The teen says IM has replaced the phone for half of her friends.

Jordan says she sometimes argues with her family when she wants to use the Internet and someone else is on the computer.

The Pew study says, "Parents and their children often do not agree about the place of the Internet in their home. Many parents say they enforce time limits on their children's use of the Internet, but most teens do not say they have limits. Many parents say they occasionally check up on the Web sites their children have visited, but most teens do not think that happens. And many parents say they have sat with their children while they were online at least at some point, but teens do not report that."

More potential hazards are entailed in online teens' surfing the Internet. Some parents worry that their online teens may be contacted through IM by dangerous people they don't know.

Parents may be justified in their fears. Close to 60 percent of online teens say they have received an IM or e-mail from a stranger, and 50 percent of them say they have exchanged e-mails or instant messages with someone they never met, the Pew study says.

Chris Mundela, 13, of Gaithersburg, says he is contacted by strangers on IMs at least once a week.

"People ask you where you live," he says. "They ask your age and your sex."

Chris saysthat when strangers ask

him those questions on IM, he either does not respond or gives them a "fake answer," such as a wrong address.

Beatrice Mundela, Chris' mother, says, "At home, I usually go on the computer and check where he has been, and I ask [Chris] who he is talking to."

If a stranger sends an instant message to a computer user, the recipient does not have to accept the IM. If the IM comes from a new screen name, the recipient has an opportunity to reject the message without reading it. Computer users also can block people who send them instant messages if they do not want to talk to the message sender. Fifty-seven percent of IM users have blocked messages from a person they didn't want to hear from, according to the Pew study.

The study also says 70 percent of online families "have the Internet-connected computer located in an open family area of the house such as a den," and "41 percent of families have installed filters or activated ISP-based controls on their computer to restrict their child's access to some kinds of content on the Web."

But some teens look for opportunities to talk with strangers online. Teens often participate in joint conversations, sometimes among themselves but often with strangers when they enter Internet "chat rooms." There teens join like-minded computer users on IM in discussing Britney Spears, "Dawson's Creek," 'N Sync and more.

Instant messaging also is trendy among college students, says Lourdez Martinez, 19, of Baltimore. Ms. Martinez, a sophomore at Johns Hopkins University, says many people use IM because it makes keeping in touch with friends, especially those who are far away, easier.

"If you have not talked to certain people in a long time, you might not be comfortable with calling, so you IM them and make the situation less awkward," Ms. Martinez says.

Marthae Casey, a 19-year-old Princeton student, has four screen names. Not all of her friends are aware that she has so many. Ms. Casey says she likes to be able to see who is online without people seeing her — that way she can know if anyone is blocking her, and it allows her to play jokes on people. She sometimes pretends to be someone other than herself on IM. The teen says she likes to scare her roommate by sending IMs to her from a secret screen name.

Many of Ms. Casey's friends leave their IMs on all day, even when they are not there, and leave "away messages." Away messages are like voice-mail messages for phones. If friends send an IM to Ms. Casey while she has an away message up, her friends will see it and be able to type a reply. Some people constantly update their away messages with notices such as, "In the shower or "Studying."

More IM advances are in the works. Even now, newly updated IMs allow people to send music, photos and graphics to one another. The AOL and Microsoft programs are being updated constantly, and as long as people are interested in IMs, advances in their technologies will continue. If history is any indication of the future, IMs will become more and more popular, especially among Internet-savvy teens.

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