Imagine using chat room technology but limiting the scope to private conversations with individuals (or small groups of people) already in your circle of friends. That’s essentially what we mean by “instant messaging” (also called “messaging”).
One of the first popular programs that enabled this kind of personal chatting was AOL Instant Messenger (abbreviated AIM or IM), first released in 1997. Since that time, this sort of communication has been referred to as “messaging” or IM’ing. Other companies produced similar products, including Microsoft Messenger and Yahoo! Messenger.
As social networking sites (such as Facebook and MySpace) emerged, messaging or directed chat was a natural extension to the capabilities of their services. Other service providers, such as Google, jumped in with services like Hangouts, an extension to Gmail. Since messaging is private and directed to friends (as opposed to chat, which is public and targeted toward strangers), any software service that maintains a list of your friends or contacts is a natural fit for messaging capability. We now see the emergence of multi-protocol applications, such as Adium, which allow users to manage messaging with any number of accounts consolidated within a single interface. In practice, that means that by using a program such as Adium I can see a list of people to chat with composed of some logged into Facebook, others using Gmail, and still others using AIM or MS Messenger. Many instant messaging services support audio and video in addition to traditional text-based chatting.
It should be obvious at this point that instant messaging is much less of a concern than chat rooms. For one thing, the point of messaging is to communicate with people you already know, or with whom you already have had prior contact. A study from 2005 reports that around 75% of teens use IM on a regular basis, with girls messaging more often than boys.3 Given the large percentage of youth using this technology, there are some significant issues to be aware of.
One of the biggest concerns for parents is inordinate amounts of time spent messaging and the potential for the formation of unhealthy emotional attachments. These two issues generally go together. Just because your child is chatting with someone they know in the real world doesn’t mean that unfettered access to that friend is necessarily a healthy thing. When children spend large amounts of time sucked into their peer group, there tends to be a natural distancing from the relationships in the family, which is usually an unhealthy development. In my teen years, the technology employed for this sort of behavior was the telephone. As my children have grown up, we simply haven’t let a child hang on the phone for long periods of time with no apparent purpose. That rule applies equally to messaging.
Messaging may be about chatting with people you already know, but the notion that your child already knows someone in the real world is, in fact, a phenomenon that lies on a spectrum from very positive to very negative. Imagine that your child is struggling spiritually but is finding answers to gospel questions through a solidly grounded friend in another state. Perhaps they spend a couple hours at a time, several days a week, messaging with this friend. Your child subsequently comes away better able to cope and strengthened in his or her testimony. That would be a good thing. It’s also easy to imagine the other end of the spectrum where your child can’t get direct access to a friend who happens to be a horrible influence, so they get on a computer and message with this friend. Perhaps they break family rules to get access, or maybe mom and dad are asleep at the switch. After they’ve spent hours online with this friend, they’re more detached emotionally, as well as spiritually.
Beyond the extreme of friends who are known, but are bad influences, are contacts that aren’t actually known in the real world. I know I said that messaging is directed communication to people you already know. That’s actually an oversimplification. Messaging is directed communication to people who are in your contact list, and with whom you’ve agreed to allow access to chat with you. So it’s deliberate, but that doesn’t stop a child from adding a contact they don’t actually know. Such a contact might come through another friend, so you get the friend of a friend contacting your child and asking to be added to their list of contacts.
Predators often seek to be added to the list of contacts for a child, whether that means friending them on Facebook, or adding them to a list of contacts on AIM (or some other messaging service). Predators seek access wherever they can get it, and if messaging is the best way, they’ll take that route. Some studies suggest that a significant number (as many as 40%) of sexual solicitations online begin with a relationship that starts with messaging. Most messaging services include the ability to send files, so it’s possible to exchange inappropriate material via messaging. This means that even directed and deliberate messaging still carries significant risks that you need to be aware of.
Your child needs to understand that it’s a very bad idea to add individuals to their list of messaging contacts when they don’t already know them. Rules of positive friendship apply to messaging the same way they do to face-to-face relationships.
This leads me to an important point. When talking about chat rooms, I said that I struggled to see any value at all and that they should be avoided. I stand by that counsel. But I feel that messaging is different. Because of the directed and personal nature of messaging, it can be a very positive and productive method of communication in certain circumstances. Here are some examples.
One of the dilemmas that many working professionals experience is taking personal time in the middle of a work day to deal with issues on the home front. As a university professor, my work environment is quite flexible, and yet I regularly find myself in situations where I am unable to take a phone call. In those situations, my wife or children may jump on Facebook or Gmail and message me. Rather than facing the interruption of a phone call, I get a short message, “hey dad this is eric, do you need the van tonight or can i take it?”4 I respond quickly, without breaking my work flow, “np. you can have it.” He responds, “thx. love you!” Your mileage may vary, but for my money that’s a very efficient and positive interaction with a son where I would otherwise have to let him leave a voicemail and then maybe get back to him quite a bit later when I can afford the time to make a phone call (possibly hours later when it’s too late). In my life with 10 children, efficient communication is a very valuable thing! That doesn’t mean we don’t do the other things, like having dinner together, family prayer, scripture study, and all the other valuable family activities that should happen when we’re together. It’s just that sometimes chatting and messaging are the best option in the moment and we ought not be afraid to use it to our advantage.