August 23, 2004
Q: I have heard horror stories about preteens and teenagers using instant messaging all the time. Should I be concerned? If so, what can I do about it? — Jill
A: Instant messaging (IM) has become, without question, the de facto communication method of the teen and preteen generation. It has spawned a whole new language of acronyms and abbreviations and has even spread to the cell phone.
Two acronyms that parents should know are POS (Parent Over Shoulder) and PAW (Parents Are Watching).
Unlike e-mail, it is a live interaction between two users anywhere in the world who are connected to the Internet. As soon as both are active, they can type messages back and forth in real time as if they were having a phone conversation. The average multitasking teenager can have several IM conversations going simultaneously.
This remarkable technology is an incredible way to stay in touch with lots of people, because anyone can connect with anyone in the IM world — and that is where the danger begins. Very young and naive IM users may unknowingly be interacting with much older predatory users who use IM to get close to young children.
If you are allowing your child to use IM without any guidelines or parameters, you are literally allowing them to be contacted by millions of strangers who have millions of agendas. You would never allow them to "hang out" with lots of older strangers in the real world, so you shouldn’t let that happen in the cyberworld either.
If you are going to allow IM in your home, you must be up to speed on the technology.
The first thing to review with your child is the profile that was set up when the program was first loaded. If your child has used real personal information, remove the information immediately and consider deleting the screen name and starting over with a new identity.
In addition, remove the ability for strangers to view your child’s profile, as that is where most predators start their search. In the default settings, most IM programs will allow anyone to "knock on the door" of your child’s computer to ask them for permission to connect with them. By delving into the settings of any IM program, you can remove the ability for strangers to knock on the door, and you can limit interactions to only those who have been approved by you. Have your child create a list of screen names and the associated real names.
Another danger of IM is the ability to transfer infected files across the Internet.
The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office has put together an easy-tounderstand IM resource site for parents at
Ken Colburn is host of the "Computer Corner" radio show noon Saturdays on KTAR (620 AM). Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.