Instant and Text Messaging: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

k yt? ht411 txt & im r g8… brb pos

The above message is very typical of the lingo today’s young people employ as they communicate via cell phone and computer using various instant messaging technologies. If you have no idea what it means, you’re not alone. There are, however, ways to stay informed. (Oh, and the message says: “Okay, are you there? Here’s the information. Text messaging and instant messaging are great…be right back, parents over shoulder.”)

Today’s society is highly charged and communications-driven. The good old days of communicating by letter and stamp are over. According to Statistics Canada, 81 per cent of homes with children under the age of 18 have Internet access. Another study reveals that 37 per cent of Grade 4 students in Canada have their own computer and 23 per cent have their own cell phone. Young people want real-time, instant contact with their peers, and instant messaging technology makes it possible. Instant messaging (or short message service) is easy, fast and generally cheaper than conventional cell phone calls. Young people are able to communicate not only with their families in the event of emergencies but also with their friends to get the latest on social activities.

But what are these technologies? Instant messaging is a text-based conversation over the Internet between two or more people who are online at the same time. To access this type of communication technology, users must first subscribe to a free online program (such as MSN). They then select a screen name and begin chatting. Using this technology, people can, while sitting at their computer, send and receive instant messages, talk with their online “buddies,” and send and receive pictures and live videos. When the contact is occurring by cell phone (using the phone’s key pad) instead of a computer, the communication is generally referred to as text messaging rather than instant messaging and, as in the case of computers, may involve the transmission of pictures and videos. To equip a cell phone for text messaging, a user must request the service from his or her cellular provider. A third possibility—communicating between computers and cell phones—is becoming increasingly popular.

These new technologies can greatly enhance education and learning. Young people tend to find technology stimulating, and it can keep them engaged in the learning process. Students can also use instant communication technologies to help each other with homework, collaborate on group assignments and share their expertise with classmates. For students having a long-term illness or living in a remote location, instant messaging technology can bring the classroom to the student.

However, parents should be aware that instant messaging technologies, in addition to presenting new opportunities, also pose risks, one of which is a new form of bullying known as “cyber bullying.” What appeals to bullies about the Internet is its anonymity. Because online bullies do not have to face their victims, they may say and do things that they would never consider doing in the real world. And because bullies can send defamatory messages to many people at the click of a button, cyber bullying can be even more hurtful than traditional bullying. Furthermore, the portability of the cell phone enables bullies to harass their victims anytime, anywhere.

Parents, educators and children must work together to find ways of using these emerging technologies wisely. To ensure that young people remain safe, here are some things that parents can do:

  1. Be informed! Learn about and explore new technologies with your child. Help your child to set up an account and to use it to communicate with family and friends.
  2. Communicate! Talk with your kids and ensure that they know what constitutes acceptable “net” behaviour. Remind them that, because information sent into the cyber world can land in anyone’s hands, personal information should never be disclosed in any online “chats.”
  3. Set privacy settings! Most instant messaging programs have privacy settings that enable users to block unwanted communications and to protect themselves from other online hazards.
  4. Be vigilant! If your child is bullied online, save the message and report it to your Internet provider and to the authorities. Caution your child not to respond to the bully.
  5. Be positive! Explore the possibilities of instant messaging technology and encourage your child to use it for educational purposes.

The following websites contain additional information about instant messaging:

  • Media Awareness Network: This site contains a section entitled “Safe Passage,” which is intended to help educators better understand the benefits as well as the potential risks of the Internet.
  • Be Web Aware: This site suggests practical measures that parents, schools and kids can take to prevent cyber bullying.
  • Wikipedia: Wikipedia’s article on “text speak” offers a good introduction to the lingo that young people use to chat.
  • SafeTeens.com: This site offers teens and parents some techniques for socializing online safely.