With a fellow volunteer, I was recently discussing the popularity of Instant Messaging (which includes MSN Messenger, Yahoo, AIM and ICQ), among young people during our weekly tutoring session at our church. At the mere mention of MSN, all the kids present starting talking about how great that technology is and how they are always on it. Within that group of children aged 12 – 17, most confessed to using instant messaging at an average of about 3 – 4 hours a night.

According to Media Awareness Network’s Study on young Canadians, out of 5,682 Canadian students aged 9 to 17 years, 56 per cent use the Internet for instant messaging (IM), and 27 per cent use it every day, or almost every day, only 28 per cent of parents are aware that their children use IM.

Online communities such as BlackPlanet.com, MeetmeinTO.com are very popular among young people. Many are essentially a place where each individual can sign up, have their own webpage, display information about themselves including pictures. Mainly anyone who is a member can send messages to other members which may lead to continuous online conversations. Most guys I know love to look for girls that they ordinarily wouldn’t talk to in public and send messages hoping that they would write back. The Los Angeles County District Attorney''s Office states that “young people often find IM easier than talking face to face. A girl who normally gets tongue-tied around boys can easily carry on a conversation using typed words and "emoticons" or "smileys" to convey messages. This eliminates awkward conversational pauses, embarrassing fumbles for the right words, and the more intimidating aspects of face-to-face encounters.” I have known people who have online boyfriends they met on MSN. These people live in different cities so they spend most Saturday nights online chatting sometimes never physically meeting.

Adults generally may have the common sense and experience to know where to cross the line if necessary and what situations not to put themselves into. But the children...

I know from personal experience that IM can get you in trouble in many different ways. I became so used to talking to girls on MSN that I couldn’t do the same thing in person. In one particular instance, I can remember going to see a girl with a friend who met someone online. She posted a fake picture online, so when we got there and saw what she actually looked like, we literally had to run away.

Online meetings can lead to other problems with stalkers and dangerous situations where one could be setup to get a beat down or worse. And then there is the hermit effect, where instead of being outside meeting people face to face, one accepts the comfort of being online and always having someone to talk to and avoiding the possible rejection and humiliation. I have known people who in person are shy quiet and non-talkative. But online, they become totally different people full of witty humor. It’s almost as if they have a fake online presence. Then when meeting up with such people it’s as though it all falls apart because those expectations built online fade away or become somewhat difficult to handle.

I can see some advantages to the online communities since one’s voice can be heard by a larger group of people. One can find people with similar interests. One can find relationships. There are also professional uses where companies have them for employees to use as a means of instant communication. And maybe the most important feature of this technology is that it is available at most computers with online capabilities such as offices, libraries, internet cafés and even some of the new cell phones which can then keep users in touch all around the world.

I cannot condemn those who use MSN or any such mediums because I at one time used it regularly, only recently stopping because of my dependence on it. This is why I know the detriments of this world and why parents should be mindful of what their children are doing. Not monitoring your kids online could be a potential problem. Microsoft suggests that parents “Monitor and limit [their] children''s use of IM. One way to do this is to sign up for the MSN Premium IM service that enables you to approve all of your child''s contacts before they can receive instant messages from those contacts.

You''ll also get a report of your child''s online activities.” And another suggestion from Los Angeles County District Attorney''s Office is to make you set limits for the use of IM with a policy that includes, no late-nights (since fewer children are online at those hours), placing a time limit on use and also reviewing his/her profiles since kids sometimes don’t have the sense to not give out important information like names and addresses to complete strangers. I made that mistake when I was 17; giving out my cell phone number to one girl I used to chat with on Yahoo. I eventually had a stalker on my hands who called me many times a day, leaving messages. I eventually had to change my number.

This kind of problem tends to arise when parents are not technologically savvy. But in this new age, there are many dangers both outside and online. It’s up to the parents to read up and learn what their children are using since the popularity of instant messaging is not going to die out very soon.

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