Instant Messenger Pros and Cons

When e-mail first became popular, a college professor observed a dramatic transformation in the behavior of a colleague from another university. The woman, a highly regarded academician, had been quite shy, barely speaking to others at professional meetings. Through e-mail, she seemed to come out of her shell. She became quite talkative over the Net, and, subsequently, interacted with greater comfort at academic conferences. The change was striking.

Clearly, there is something about the casual, informal nature of Instant Messenger (IM) in particular that offers opportunities for social connection that the phone and “snail” mail do not for many of our youth. Boys and girls mingle and mix with ease, forging interactions and friendships that might not otherwise occur.

In interviewing them about their attraction to IM, I was very impressed with their thoughtful and balanced responses — their willingness to share their perspectives not only of IM’s assets, but also its drawbacks.

Youth can express themselves creatively on IM in several ways. Everyone is identified with a self-designed “screen name,” which can reflect a hobby, interest, sense of humor or fantasy (such as groovy88, scoobydoo21 or needstherapy101). Conversations are typed in shorthand with abbreviations that form a kind of language, incorporating etiquette and accommodations for the absence of sound (“lol” means “laugh out loud,” “brb” means “be right back” and “g2g” means “got to go”). IM can provide occasions for speaking one’s mind or casually reaching out to people one might not necessarily have courage to chat with in more formal settings. Rosetta, age 12, refers to this aspect of IM as inviting “boldness.”

This apparent easing of inhibitions has its advantages and disadvantages. Sara, 17, warns “about the tendency people have to disregard common boundaries online because [in some ways, the Internet] doesn’t feel real, and this can cause problems.” A recent incident in our local community illustrates this kind of abuse. A sixth grade boy assumed the screen name of his friend and sent a sexually harassing IM to a mutual female friend. Both the boy whose name he “hid behind” as well as the recipient of the message felt upset and violated. While this kind of activity is the exception, Sara advises IM and e-mail users to exercise caution.

Conversely, Ben, 14, suggests that IM allows for more circumspection. “You can pause to think of things to talk about — which would be awkward on the phone.” One has time to reflect and compose one’s thoughts without as much time pressure. The more flexible timing and rhythm permit one to edit and revise.

Several additional critical considerations:

It is harder to type than to speak and takes longer to express full thoughts. This makes it more difficult to talk about things that need a lot of description.

Unneeded misinterpretations and turmoil can occur online because emotions, such as sarcasm, anger or humor, are not conveyed well.
One can be distracted while doing research, homework or reading e-mail when the IM dialogue box automatically pops into view.

Risa, 12, shares her family’s safety rules: no public chat rooms, IM communication can only occur with known people on her list, and if someone does or says something objectionable or inappropriate, you can “block” their messages electronically.

Of course, along with the phone, television and video games, parents are in the position of regulating and negotiating the occasions for use and the amount of screen time. But there is always a silver lining: Developing great keyboard skills has never been so easy, or so much fun!

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