Ask Parry - How Safe is Instant Messaging?
My children are using instant messaging (or as they call it, “AIM”). What is it? Is it safe?
A Concerned Mom
Dear Concerned Mom:
Ask children, tweens and teens what they do the most on the Internet and you’ll hear them chant in unison… "IM!" (When they aren’t using Facebook or texting :) )Whether it’s AIM (the most popular IM technology that is owned by AOL) or any other branded IM technology (most large service providers, like Yahoo! have their own), it’s something that kids do and parents are just starting to learn about.
Instant messaging is chat, email, messaging, webcams and a way to send pictures and files…all in one. You can do it online, on cell phones or using mobile devices. It pops up even when you are typing a term paper or surfing the Web. Ten years ago TV Guide decided to do an article about online safety, and the journalist was shocked at learning that 100% of the young teens he asked were using instant messaging.
What many do not know, however, is that instant messaging is used in almost every case of Internet child molestation and luring. Parents don’t understand the IM technology, and aren’t watching what takes place using IM. All it takes is a casual “hi” message from an unknown sender to get the kids to reply with their own “hi.” Often that’s all it takes.
While we don’t want to demonize instant messaging (we think it’s great!), we do want kids and parents alike to know that they can and should block strangers from sending them instant messages. We also want to warn parents and kids that you should never leave an away message (like an answering machine message, but using instant messaging) for when you are not online, that includes your home or cell phone number. This is an emerging problem that we need to nip in the bud.
Want to know more about instant messaging safety? Check out our WiredSafety.org site and read the tips for teens and the separate one for parents. This is all about having fun online, and being safe at the same time.
Here’s something from my latest book explaining the technology, how it’s abused and how to handle any risks:
What is Instant Messaging?Instant messaging is real-time communication. It’s a blend of email, webcams and chat (since you send one to someone and get real-time communication), but better. It has also eclipsed email as the most popular Internet communication tool for individuals (email still leads for businesses).
How Does It Work?On instant messaging you get a screen name from your provider, which is the equivalent of an email address. That’s how others can find and contact you. (You can even chat and webcam using instant messaging and send attachments like photos or documents to others.) On AOL's AIM, you use your screen name as your AIM address. Other instant messaging services use their own identifiers, including a screen name or code name.
Using instant messaging is easier than sending an email because the instant messaging programs all run in the “background.” That means they can interrupt your other applications by popping the message up on your screen or flashing an icon on your task bar. When you compare it to sending an email, think of it as beeping someone instead of calling them: it finds you anywhere and interrupts you, although just like when you’re beeped, you can ignore it. The other method (email) works only if you answer it, like using a phone.
What's Special about Them?IMs are a faster shorter form of communication - a postcard instead of a letter. A short form of communication called "chat lingo" has developed, as have emoticons (smileys) and acronyms (using the first letter of each word for commonly used phrases, like BRB for "be right back"). But, since they are written quickly and responded to as quickly, carelessness and brains-that- are-too-quick-for-their-thumbs create typos and miscommunications and even misdirected communications that create problems.
It’s a shame that the technology that can be so helpful for productive reasons can be misused as easily for negative ones. AOL’s parental controls permit IMs only at the young teen level, and they know best.
Don’t allow your children to use instant messaging until they are old enough to use them carefully and responsibly—and you know they are following your rules. And read about how the kid sites are designing programs to give your children instant messaging capability safely. But remember that adults can sign up at most kid sites by pretending to be a child, and can communicate within that service with your child and not all filtered communication tools are foolproof.
So, even in a kid-friendly environment, your children have to use their “stranger-danger radar.” Make sure that you have set up your child’s account to restrict strangers from being able to contact your children, and to keep their contact information private. Also, check these services’ new safety and privacy features frequently. Those features are being added regularly, and you’ll want to be able to take advantage of them.
And teach your child to block anyone, even a close friend, who is harassing them or cyberbullying them. Make sure they and you know how to report abuses. And go over the "when to tell Mom," rules and keep an eye on their accounts and passwords.
Make sure that your child understands netiquette and is careful about what they say, how they say it and to whom they send an IM. Warn them about the webcam risks and what should and shouldn't be sent online.
Bottom-line: IM is great, easy and fun. But if you're not careful about privacy settings and what you write and send, instant messaging can cause big headaches. Setting it up right in the beginning, locking out people you don't want to hear from and not sending anything you'll regret can avoid most problems. Go for it if your kids are ready for it!