- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 5, 2004

A friend asked my advice a couple of weeks ago. Her son was getting Instant Messages from a classmate containing words usually found on the inside of bathroom stalls — vocabulary that will advance his career if he becomes a rap musician.

“How do kids learn these words?” she asked. Rap, for starters.

“I don’t even know this boy — or his parents,” she lamented. “What do you think I should do?”

Her dilemma illustrates one of the many reasons we don’t use Instant Messaging at our house — a policy my two older children regret, to put it mildly.

“It’s pathetic — we’re the only two people over the age of 10 without screen names,” they said. We were sitting around the table after dinner, so I told them about the conversation with my friend.

I agree it’s pathetic, but my reasons are a little different.

Instant Messaging is the bane of my parenting existence because I’m among a small minority of people who think it’s bad for children. My objection is the combustive combination of anonymity, impulsivity and adolescent insecurity.

Youngsters say things online they would never say in person or even over the phone. They hide behind a faceless screen that doesn’t reveal the hurt feelings of the receiver. They deceive schoolmates, spread rumors and gossip, even trash reputations beyond repair.

At the very least, Instant Messages are the source of “major drama” — as if growing up doesn’t have enough already. This is what makes it fun, I guess.

Back when she was in sixth grade, my eldest daughter lobbied to use Instant Messaging because “everyone is doing it.”

Fulfilling a woman’s destiny to open her mouth and hear the voice of her mother, I answered, “If everyone put a pork chop around their neck and played with a pit bull, would you do that, too?”

I figured it was better to be out of the loop than to see my child’s true confessions, intended for her closest pals, taped to her locker. I said no.

By seventh grade, this decision also meant she would avoid most other forms of social contact because all plans are made in cyberspace. Nobody uses phones anymore because they’re tied up by computers.

Once, my daughter attempted to get around our policy. Collecting e-mail addresses of her middle school buddies, she took to the computer on an evening when my husband and I were out. Her girlfriends’ responses approximated the IM experience.

Of course, because she was a rookie at both e-mail and parental deception, she didn’t realize all her correspondence was saved. Its content? In a word: pointless.

To her credit, she was conversational. She wrote about school or homework, using what little cyber-slang she knew, ending with, “What R U DU IN?”

Almost every friend answered, “Nothing.” One girl wrote, “My mom is doing our laundry” — riveting.

A check of the times on these exchanges had her sitting at the computer for more than three hours. With that much time to kill, my daughter could have done our laundry.

When confronted about her unauthorized use of the computer, she confessed that she just wanted to go to school the next day and say she’d been online. Who could blame her for longing to fit in?

It was a moment that nearly caused me to cave and call AOL for a screen name and an adolescent social life for my daughter — but I didn’t do it.

Now that she’s a high school sophomore, IM is a way of life for everyone she knows. When people find out she has no screen name, it’s as if they’re meeting someone who’s never seen snow or indoor plumbing or an electric can opener.

“You don’t have Instant Messaging?” they ask, incredulously. She shrugs it off (no doubt with a passing comment about her mother, the dinosaur), but I know it hurts.

So the other night, I said, “I suppose you could get Instant Messaging. I’d think about it, anyway.” But immediately, I regretted it.

The problem is, I still believe everything I thought about Instant Messaging back when children first discovered it. Worse, most parents I have asked tell me their children have received sexually explicit, profane and even satanic messages at one time or other — and most are frustrated by the amount of time their children spend online.

Still, I struggle with this one. My daughter’s friends are good, wholesome teens, and she deserves to be part of their social structure. Yet my husband and I believe the policies in our home must reflect our values. We simply don’t value Instant Messaging.

We talked about how hard it is to grow up in a world where her parents set rules that make her life different from virtually everyone else’s. “We’re not trying to make you miserable,” I reassured her.

With that — and no conclusion about reversing our IM policy — my girls gabbed and giggled their way through the dinner dishes.

Later, when they finished their homework, one curled up with a new book and the other played her flute.

The next night, I stuck my head in my daughter’s room. “Can we talk about the IM thing again?”

“Good idea. Let’s beat that dead horse some more,” she cracked. But then she took me by surprise. “I’m really OK without it Mom. I think you should just trust your instincts.”

It’s the wisest advice a parent can get, and I’m taking it.

Columnist Marybeth Hicks, a wife of 17 years and mother of four children, lives in the Midwest. She uses her column to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families nationwide. Visit her Web site (www.marybethhicks. com) or send e-mail to marybeth.hicks@comcast.net.

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