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Pitfalls of Instant Messenger

04/22/04 12:00AM By Caleb Daniloff
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(Host) In this age of cyber communications, commentator Caleb Daniloff has found that for many the phone will no longer do. And that has all kinds of implications.

(Daniloff) The Burlington Free Press recently published several stories about student misuse of computers, cyber bullying and internet chat rooms that promote suicide. One area of abuse singled out was Instant Messenger, or IM to countless members. This electronic form of communication allows users to chat via text messages in real time.

My step-daughter, a sixth-grader, has an IM account, as do many of her friends. The appeal to kids is obvious. IM can't be overheard and users can chat with several people at once. It's free to download, simple to use and here to stay. IM is already erasing the image of the cord-twirling teenager gabbing on the phone while parents stare wide-eyed at the latest bill.

Out of the ether, IM can create virtual hallways and playgrounds where kids can roam anytime, a silent extension of the school day, complete with the social dangers. Bullying can indeed persist. Gossip and gang harassment can flourish. The careless exchange of buddy lists can put strangers in one's orbit.

Despite an inherent flatness of emotion and physical distance, kids spend a great deal of time expressing themselves on IM. User profiles detail likes and dislikes. Personal icons are stamped in the corner of their text box like a tattooed shoulder images of their favorite movie star or rapper. Identities are created and discarded like ballroom masks.

IM is even authoring its own language. A scattering of acronyms composed of the first letter of each word in a phrase. The letter combination LOL, "laugh out loud," has already entered the mainstream. But there are plenty others. RME means "rolling my eyes." ICBW stands for "it could be worse." POS means "parent over shoulder." It's a new hieroglyphics, and parents would be wise to POS.

By creating my own account, I soon learned the rhythms and nuances of IM, mostly by checking in with my step-daughter after school, seeing how her day went. Her responses on IM were sometimes more robust than by phone. By speaking her language, I had gained more of her ear.

IM is a tool for adults, too. Parents can keep in touch with their kids at college. Couples separated by work can decide on dinner or what groceries to pick up. One woman I know likes to check her
grand-daughter's away message just to see what she's up to. "Gone downtown with friends," it might read.

Howard Dean's tech-savvy presidential campaign was a facile user of IM. During candidate debates, a single chatroom linked various segments of the campaign to the debate team on site. The contribution of multiple voices made the dialogue rich and efficient. Well-crafted press releases were distributed with lightning speed.

In the end, the way humans relate to one another won't change too much. The manner in which we conduct those relations is forever unfolding. After all, when I was my step-daughter's age, I thought stringing two soup cans together was a pretty cool way to talk to a buddy.

This is Caleb Daniloff of Middlebury.

Caleb Daniloff is a copywriter and freelance journalist.
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