Right Now: Teens and Instant Messenger

It's something you probably imagined as a kid. You send a written message out into the universe and immediately your friend who lives across town — or across the country — replies. Just two decades ago, the technology was still the stuff of dreams for most folks. Now it's real and almost universally available. So it's not hard to understand the appeal of instant messaging to teenagers. Uninitiated adults can read on to find out just what instant messaging is and how teenagers use it.

Instant messaging (IMing, for short) uses free software to allow two Internet users to exchange typed messages in real time. Contact lists or "buddy lists" allow users to see which of their friends or acquaintances is online and send chat requests to each other."What is Instant Messaging?"*WiseGeek. Accessed November 21, 2007. Once a communication window is opened, one user types his or her comments and immediately upon hitting "enter," the words appear on the other person's screen. Because of the quick delivery, IMing can be much more like a conversation than say, e-mail.

IM doesn't cost anything beyond the price of an Internet connection, so it becomes an alternative to paying long distance phone bills. In addition, a user can have multiple IM windows open at the same time — effectively allowing two, five or ten private conversations to occur simultaneously. And now, mobile technology allows instant messaging from cell phones, so it's possible to IM nearly anytime and anywhere. Windows, AOL, Yahoo! and Google all distribute instant messaging software, and technology solutions are becoming increasingly available that allow users of different IM providers to communicate with each other.Jeff Tyson and Allison Cooper, "How Instant Messaging Works,"*HowStuffWorks.com. Accessed November 21, 2007.

A November 2007 poll performed by the Associated Press and AOL reveals some telling facts about young people and IM use:Editor's note: The AP/AOL study is not available in its entirety to the public. However, the two articles cited in footnotes 4 and 5 are different summaries of its content and together provide a big-picture look at the study's findings.

  • Teens beat adults hands-down for IM usage, with nearly half saying they use the technology, as opposed to about 20 percent of adults."Poll: Teens Use IMs to avoid embarrassment," CNN.com (November 16, 2007). Accessed November 21, 2007.
  • Seventy percent of IM users age 13 to 18 send more instant messages than e-mails."AP-AOL Instant Messaging Trends Survey Reveals Popularity Of Mobile Instant Messaging," AOL News and Broadcast Center (November 15, 2007). Accessed November 21, 2007.
  • Results of a similar poll released in December 2006 revealed that 30 percent of teens who use instant messaging — compared with 17 percent of adults who do — say they can't imagine life without IM.Will Lester, "Poll: 'IM-ing' Divides Teens, Adults,""*USAToday.com (December 8, 2006). Accessed November 21, 2007.

In many ways, these figures are just a snapshot of a new technology being embraced by a new generation. But in a few cases, teen IM habits indicate a need for parents to talk with their kids about wisdom and good choices. For example, 43 percent of teen IMers say they use it for discussions they prefer not to have in person — including potentially awkward or embarrassing ones about asking for a date or ending a relationship.CNN.com (November 16, 2007). See footnote 4. And 57 percent of young people who use IM say that, after IMing while checking e-mail, their favorite multi-tasking combo is IMing while doing online research for homework assignments.AOL News and Broadcast Center (November 15, 2007). See footnote 5. In most cases, these aren't reasons to forbid teens to use IM — just opportunities for teachable moments about responsibility, healthy risk-taking in relationships, and the cultivation of good study habits.

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