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Instant messaging: managing the medium

Published on: August 01, 2004

A mom awakens in the middle of the night to the sound of her middle school daughter tiptoeing out of her room. When she fails to return, the mom's suspicions are aroused. Is she sneaking out, meeting friends? Not exactly.

A get together is in the making all right, but instead of gathering at the ravine down the street, these teens have arranged a virtual sneak. They'll be hanging out on the Internet with friends on a "buddy list" using Instant Messaging.

Instant Messaging (IM) has caught on so quickly and become so huge in many teens' lives that it's hard to believe it's only been around since 1998, when it was introduced by AOL. Here to stay as the new "ravine," IM, like television and video games, is yet another technology that parents struggle to manage. It's a top item of concern, particularly for parents of middle schoolers. Parents are alarmed by its pervasiveness, and if they catch their child using IM under suspicious circumstances like a midnight rendezvous, they can hit the roof. The best approach for parents is to be informed and proactive, to supervise closely the middle schooler who may not fully understand the consequences of her impetuous actions, and to react appropriately when there's a problem.

A social bee hive

What makes IM so powerful? The lure for middle schoolers relates in part to their age and stage. Wobbly and unsure of themselves, young adolescents have always needed to feel included in their peer group and participate in like-minded interests. Before IM, parents complained about phone habits. IM, which buzzes with activity, is more stimulating and exciting than the phone.

IM plays into the drive to join the tribe of early adolescence. Participating in this hip new ritual gives these kids membership and status. IM is inherently exclusive because you can only contact and be contacted by those on your Buddy List. When you're part of a desirable Buddy List, you feel important: It's like being invited to sit at the "right" table in the cafeteria.

IM has ratcheted up the social pace, with information flying fast. Anyone who doesn't keep up with their IM risks losing their place in the pack, or getting out of the loop. Typically, IM is pursued most urgently during middle school and becomes a non-issue by the end of high school, as teens become more sure of themselves and seek more authentic relationships. In other words, as the social vulnerabilities of adolescence peak during middle school and early high school, IM becomes the fertile ground for working it out--in healthy and unhealthy ways.

Problems and possibilities

The most common problem with IM is competition with homework. Teens tell parents they're working on the computer, but they're also using IM on the side. For many parents, this feels like lying about homework; it doesn't to the teen because she is doing it - and an argument ensues. Gossip is another major concern because it moves faster with IM, with the potential to spread out of control. Rumors spread this way appear more valid because they have "hard copy." Caught up in the moment, middle schoolers may not be guarded with personal information. They believe they're sharing a secret among friends--but, in reality, the information can be easily forwarded, printed and copied, and can follow a teen for years. Information is powerful currency--the "juicier" the disclosure, the more ripe it is for spreading.

The most harmful use of IM is as a tool for over-sexualized communications, bullying or pulling pranks. Teens can get carried away and be more provocative or malicious than they ever would in "face" time. A common prank is to gain access to someone's password and then imitate this person, sometimes in unflattering ways. In general, there's a lot of not thinking it through--not thinking about repercussions and not thinking about the impact on the victim, which is usually a reflection of a young teen's immaturity.

On the positive side, when teens read something in print, they can become more reflective. Unlike oral information, which tends to ride the surface, written content provokes deeper understanding of another person and thereby more empathy. Teens can better absorb what another person is trying to tell them.

IM allows teens with busy schedules and ones who attend school outside their neighborhood to stay connected. Many young people claim they'd be lonely without it, and when friends are all over the area, IM saves parents a drive across town.

What's a parent to do?

Middle school is prime time for parents to work with their teens on problems associated with IM. Try these tips:

Help your teen think through the dangers and the ramifications of various impulses. Moralizing loses teens, so consider using the third person technique, "I heard of a girl who...," and then walk through some of the disasters.

Keep computers in public spaces and post a sign: "Never put anything in print that you don't want others to see," or "Once you push the button, you can't take it back."

Remind teens never to share their passwords with anyone.

As with the phone, TV and other screen activities, establish time limits and protocol. Restrict use when the agreement is violated. If parents have information that IM is a problem, keep a lid on its use. The more risk-taking and sensation-seeking the teen, the more conservative parents will need to be.

A parent's first impulse, when faced with IM, might be to try to completely restrict it, since it can be put to such crude use during middle school. But once teens gain age and maturity, it's often the means for staying in touch with friends. Parents may even become future fans, using IM with their college student one day.


Laura Kastner, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, and Jennifer Wyatt, Ph.D., a writer, are the authors of The Launching Years: Strategies for Parenting from Senior Year to College Life (Three Rivers Press, 2002) and The Seven-Year Stretch: How Families Work Together to Grow Through Adolescence (Houghton Mifflin, 1997). To comment on this story, contact

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