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.1 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.2
A November 2007 poll performed by the Associated Press and AOL reveals some telling facts about young people and IM use:3
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.7 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.8 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.