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Teens & Talk: The Lure of Instant Messaging

Fourteen-year-old Samantha has her fingers on the keyboard and the phone at her ear, communicating with several friends while doing her homework. She loves instant messaging, almost as much as she loves the phone. To see her in action is to witness a champion "multi-tasker."

"I have 102 buddies on my Buddy List and you can click on your buddy if they're online," she says. "At the most I'll talk to 7 or 8 people at one time, usually 3 or 4."

Samantha's mother, Helene, complains, "Left to her own devices, she'd be talking to her friends constantly. And she had the gall to say to me, 'I don't have time to do my homework!'"

Helene restricted her daughter's email privileges after the teen brought home a bad report card. She also said no to requests for a bedroom phone and a beeper. Still, this mom wonders how much of a communications crackdown is appropriate, given the nature of adolescence.

"Peers are so incredibly important," Helene muses. "She needs to be in touch with her friends and what's going on."

"IM-ing"" The 21st-Century Pizza Parlor

Is Instant Messaging bad for teens and preteens? How does it change the nature of their relationships? When should parents "pull the plug"? We put these questions to Sherry Turkle, a professor of sociology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who studies the effects of new technology on identity development.

Familyeducation.com: We've come a long way from the pizza parlors of yesteryear, where teens would gather to socialize. Is the Internet a pale substitute?

Turkle: In some ways, but it also offers things a pizza parlor doesn't. Cyberspace offers the possibility of experimentation with a wide variety of different people, places, and personas. Adolescents are in the business of trying out new things and playing with their identities, so cyberspace can be a very exciting environment for growing and developing.

On the down side, the pizza parlor teaches some things that cyberspace isn't good at teaching, which is to learn the shades of gray in relationships, the ability to read body language, and how to reach compromises in ways that attend to the whole person. So cyberspace offers something new that physical reality doesn't, and in some ways takes something away.

Familyeducation.com: What's the downside of IM-ing for, say, 12- and 13-year-olds?

Turkle: In cyberspace things tend to get amplified. When you're mad at a friend, you type, "I'm mad..." and the other person isn't seeing the look in your eye that's also saying, "Look, but I want to be your friend." They're reading your type and there's a tendency to respond in the same way. So it takes longer for the sense of connection to emerge out of that conversation. Particularly at that age, kids really need to be learning about how complex the emotional environment of social life is, and cyberspace has some things to offer, but this is not one of them.

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