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IM Podcast

Podcast Series on Specific Technologies, Part 1: Instant Messenger

This series looks at the good things and challenges associated with teenage use of each specific technology.  Comments are welcome! 

Download this file or download the file at iTunes 

IM Podcast : Technology Series, Part 1


Flaming Text Messages: Thumb-centered Conflict Management

It's the ultimate way to tell someone off.  You send them a nasty text, then turn off your phone. That'll show them!  You think thats just a snotty way immature middle school students use cell phones?  Guess again.  My college students say thats how many of their friends solve conflicts.  Keep in mind, these are 18-21 year olds!

According to my students, text messaging allows people to be mean in a whole new way. There's something about the text-based environment that frees users to act in ways that they would never think of if they had to actually look the person in the eyes.  In fact, research involving online communication suggests that as many as 58% of teens have had someone say something mean to them online.  The really disturbing part is that 54% said they have said something mean to someone else.  That means even our sweet, mature, kind children are able to find their mean voice when it comes to cyberspace.

This disinhibition effect seems particularly tricky when it comes to text messaging.  It is difficult to stop messages from coming into a cell phone unless the user blocks all text messages.  There have been reports of "text wars" where teens gang up on an individual and send thousands of vulgar text messages, often resulting in large cell phone bills. At the very least, texting seems to happen on a faster and less controlled fashion than IM conversations based on a home computer. Since the phone is right there when someone gets upset, it is easy to send a flaming message without thinking through how that might affect the other person.

So how do we help our kids manage conflicts more effectively at the same time they are using the technology when they are away from home and away from our prying eyes? It seems the only thing to do is talk to them.  By training them to better handle negative emotions and how to deal with others who flame or bully them, we are helping them develop important interpersonal skills for a high-tech age.  For instance, encourage your child to never send a text or e-mail when they are upset.  Flaming is a poor way to deal with conflicts and it is a bad habit that can follow them into adulthood. Second, have your child save their text messages--especially ones that may be abusive.  Most research suggests kids are very hesitant to tell on other kids who misuse technology.  Talk with your child about how important it is to tell you if something comes up, assuring them you won't automatically take away their cell phone.  Finally, when you see problems come up between your child and his or her friends, consider how technology may be making things worse. Challenge your child to deal with conflict face toface, in a way that forces each person to take responsibility for their actions.

Solving conflict in this high-tech era requires an extra set of interpersonal skills. If your child is using a cell phone, you may want to sit down and have a chat.  By teaching our kids how they can use their thumbs in positive ways, we can equip them for a future that successfully integrates both technology and conflict.


OMG! Wht r thA sying!?: Is IM Language ruining our kids?

Have you seen those new books at Barnes & Noble?  The ones written for teens using just IM screens and IM language. There’s love and drama and mystery—all written in a way that is completely, well, misspelled!   If you have kids on IM, I’ll bet you’ve seen the way they completely rewrite the English language in an effort to type faster, be funny, and, quite honestly, hide conversations from parents. The question is…is it really NBD? (That’s ‘no big deal’ for those of you who need a translation.)

On one hand, I just about sit and cry when I think of all those spelling tests we studied for. One look at an IM conversation and its clear, those extra vowels were just a sad waste of time. As a teacher, I have seen the impact.  My college students seem to place less value on good spelling and grammar—especially on more informal writing like journals, personal response papers, and e-mails. On the other hand, these students who have been using IM language for at least 4 or 5 years, are able to write just fine when they put their mind to it. It is possible that IM language, when used in the correct context, may not only not hurt kids but it may actually help them.

According to a recent study done by two sociolinguists from University of Toronto, it is possible that “developing and practicing with a whole new model of communication allows kids to flex linguistic muscles which otherwise would have remained dormant” (  In other words, as kids learn to make up their own abbreviations, using and manipulating new words and phrases, they are actually becoming skilled at learning, well a whole new language.  As a result, IM language may actually be helping our kids become more skilled at language use in general.

Now before you check to see if the college you are sending your child to accepts IMSpeak as a second language, its not all gr8t news.  It seems to me a real challenge is to teach children how to confine IMspeak to their IM and text messaging programs.  Adults need to be aware of times when the language is used in contexts where it is not appropriate (like e-mails to adults, resumes, and term papers in English). By highlighting how important good spelling and grammar are in certain contexts, we can help them become better communicators in all contexts.

As parents, we also need to be aware of IMspeak that is designed to hide potentially dangerous conversations from a wary parent’s eye.  (I have included a list of acronyms that might be used to hide face to face meetings or secret relationships.) While we probably won’t become fluent with this uniquely teenage language, we at least can’t be naïve about how our children use it.

So next time you throw up your hands in despair as you read your child’s IM, take pause and think about how much smarter your child will be!

AAR8T,  IMspk iznt all bd.  Well, GTG, CUL8R!

A/S/L or ASL - age/sex/location (used to ask a chatter their personal information)

BBS - be back soon

F2F - face to face

CD9, Code 9 - someone in the room

POS, MOS, P911 - parent over shoulder, mom over shoulder, parent in room

LOL - laughing out loud

IRL - in real life

B/F, G/F - boyfriend, girlfriend


"Pleeeese! Everyone else is doing it!" Is it time to let your child get connected?

It was classic.  I had just given a presentation to a group of parents about Instant Messenger and MySpace.  A mother comes up to me and asks "So when do I let my child go online? When are they old enough?" I then look at the sweet 9-year-old boy standing next to her as he looks at me, eyes filled with both eternal embarrassment and that tweenage look of helplessness. He knew my next words could change the course of his young online life.

 So, when are they old enough?  Is everyone else REALLY doing it? Well, no matter what your children tell you, they aren't all doing it.  According to the latest PEW study on adolescents and online behavior, by 6th grade only 60% of kids are online on a regular basis.  Yes, that's more than half, but that also means roughly 40% of them either aren't interested or have parents who would rather not have their tweenage children online.  Middle school is when it changes, however.  By 7th grade, 72% of kids are online and by 11th and 12th grade, 94% of teens (in a very large survey sample) report being online. One interesting finding is that girls tend to get online (mostly IM) in 7th grade while boys lag behind, finding IM interesting in 8th and 9th grade.  Other findings, however, suggest that boys get online to play games with one another at an earlier age than girls.

While a majority of kids begin using the internet to communicate with one another in their late tweens and early teens,mostly using IM, kids who use online social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace tend to be older.  MySpace requires kids to be at least 14 years old to register.  Clearly kids can lie about their age because there are no polygraph tests given by MySpace, but the statistics also seem to indicate that it is the older kids who are drawn to these public forums.  According to a PEW study on online social networking, only 55% of online teens use sites like Facebook and MySpace. That means almost half of American teens do NOT use these sites.

So, instead of trying to figure out how old a child should be, maybe its best to think about your child's skills and the specific technologies he or she will be using.  For instance, e-mail, while not so cool for older teens (it's so 90's!), is a good first step for younger children.  It is more easily monitored--especially if you use one of the many sites developed specifically for children (see the parent resource page for a listing of sites).  A child who is being introduced to e-mail should have a fairly decent ability to express him or herself using just words.   He or she should also have a good understanding of how a message might be interpreted by their friend.  Because text-based messages are so open to misunderstanding, if a child is too self-centered to think about how something might come across to others, he or she may be more prone to unintentionally hurt or offend a friend online.

A step beyond e-mail based in a kid-friendly website might be a regular e-mail account.  Instant Messenger, the likely next step, requires kids to demonstrate better communication skills as well as more responsibility.  Since you probably can't (and shouldn't) read all of the IM conversations, you have to place a certain degree of trust in your child. You need to ask yourself if your child has developed that trust.  Online gaming is also quite popular with boys and also requires a certain amount of discipline and responsibility.  Kids swear ALOT in online games and your child needs to know how to deal with that type of communication.  Finally, sites like MySpace and Facebook should be reserved for young people who have a proven record of trustworthy and mature  behavior.  Kids can gain access to lots of adult things on MySpace.  Young kids who are just getting the hang of living in the fast online lane probably shouldn't start with one of these social networking sites.

So, next time your kids whine and beg and promise to clean their rooms if only they could go online, consider what skills they bring to the experience.  Hopefully, you will be right there, helping them to build good online habits as they learn to function in an increasing wireless world. 


Don't Forget the SPAM!

We all know what a pain SPAM can be.  If it isn't a great investment tip, it's helpful information on weight control, dating services, or Viagra. At the very least, these messages clog up our e-mails and give us a little chuckle every now and then. At the most, these e-mails can spread viruses, steal our identitites, and provide an easy portal to pornopgrahy and other mighty bad influences.  Good thing we are all grown up and know how to handle SPAM.

But, wait.  Our kids use e-mail too. If you are like me, you teach your kids about stranger danger and how to avoid online stalkers, but sort of forget about the whole SPAM thing--sort of figure the filtering software will take care of that one.  Unfortuantely, SPAM can show up in kids' e-mail accounts regardless of filters or blockers.  According to a survey done by Symantec (a company that just happens to sell filtering software), 80% of children between the ages of 7 and 18 receive SPAM on a DAILY basis (see reference button for more survey information).  Although the survey is a few years old, it still highlights a problem that is easily overlooked.

According to the survey, 80% of teenage e-mailers receive SPAM on sweepstakes, saying they have won things like Playstations, 62% receive dating information, 55% have received weight loss information, 51% have received Viagra and "enlargement" information, and 47% have received e-mails with links to X-rated adult websites. For me,the most disturbing finding was that "although 89% of the kids surveyed responded that they have heard of spam, nearly 1 in 3 still do not know whether spam is good or bad for them. In addition, 22% of respondents said that their parents have never talked to them about spam."

So...have you had a talk about SPAM? Take a few minutes to talk to younger and more naive e-mailers about what SPAM is (no, it isn't a new friend who cares about your well being) and what to do with SPAM (no, don't open the very interesting  attachment or follow the blinking link).  No matter how smart our software is, those SPAM'ers will always be a little smarter.  By teaching kids how to deal with the stuff, we can prepare them to effectively deal with the next new "friend" that drops a helpful note into their e-mail account.