Mini messengers

How young is too young for kids to instant-message?

At six, my daughter became an instant messaging addict. “Can I just check who’s online?” she’d ask every 10 minutes, hoping to find her little boyfriend tapping away inside the webcam video in the corner of our computer screen.

Between Rachel and her eight-year-old brother, Seth, our computer now houses an online community of over 40 kids. At all times of day, someone is waiting to chat, and if I’m not standing like a security guard behind my babes, I have no idea what conversations are taking place. While it’s mostly innocent fun, one of my kids’ IM buddies is on there for hours straight; another has a filthy mouth.

Instant messaging, or IMing as it’s known in households across the world, starts younger than you’d think. A 2003 report by the US Corporation for Public Broadcasting notes preschoolers are the fastest-growing group of Internet users. According to Canadian researcher Reactorz, the age when kids start to IM is dropping to the just-past-literacy threshold. The bottom line: Any child who can read or write can IM, and little ones catch on fast as they watch older siblings rush to socialize by computer.

But should parents be concerned? Sure we want to encourage our children’s discovery of the online universe, yet even tweens — who are clearly better equipped than preschoolers to navigate the dangers of the Internet — can fall prey to the Web’s seedy side. So the question is: Are kids under eight simply too young to IM?

Samantha Wilson, founder of Kidproof Canada and author of Safe Kids, Safe Families, says yes. “Youngsters lack the critical thinking skills to distinguish real from false content and should never instant-message without strict supervision.” Alyson Schäfer, a Toronto parenting coach, agrees, but adds that too much supervision makes kids feel we don’t trust them. Still, parents of the under-eight crowd must set clear ground rules.

Unlike chat rooms or message boards, where your child is essentially out in the Web world alone, IMing occurs in a more controlled environment where you build a buddy list and chat with only those members. But many kids, eager to collect names, share their lists and start receiving messages from people they don’t know. Also, constant IMing can lead to other problems, like Internet addiction (which keeps kids staring at the screen even on a sunny day) and cyberbullying. If your child expresses an interest in communicating online, start him slowly by having him email family members. Before he graduates to the more open world of instant messaging, consider these precautions:

Always use the IM software’s privacy tools
IM software comes with its own controls that require your approval for each new contact, allow you to locate all sent and received messages, and let you block dirty words. Visit Protecting Our Kids to get tips on how to protect privacy in MSN Messenger, ICQ and AOL Instant Messenger. Also, help your child build an anonymous online profile with no identifying details, such as name, age or sex: Emilysmith or littleboy are dangerous handles because strangers get a sense of who kids are.

Teach kids to create a safe buddy list
Before accepting a new name, your child should ask you for permission and, ideally, only welcome buddies who have handed over their profile names in person. The common impulse to accept a friend-of-a-friend may permit an older teen or even a predator into the group, especially if your child’s friend’s older sister has a web space on an open site like nexopia.com.

Consider a catered-to-kids IM site
Opt for introducing your youngster to instant messaging through a gated portal, such as Club Penguin or Kids Online. Registration allows children to IM with friends who have also registered. While technically anyone can log on, the site has its own parental controls and filters out inappropriate content.

Encourage kids to watch their language
Explain to your child that IMing is just another form of dialogue, so they shouldn’t type words they wouldn’t say to someone’s face and they should let you know about any words they read that make them uncomfortable.

Keep the computer in a common area
It’ll be easier for you to supervise if it’s kept, say, in the family room. However, if you want to monitor message content, you’ll need to be up on IM slang (netlingo.com), including short forms inappropriate for young children, such as pos (parent over shoulder) or sos (same old shit). Though you may not want to hover over your kids, they should know that if you see signs of misuse — such as nervousness or hiding messages — you’ll suss out their activities.

Teach kids the value of variety
Although instant messages appear as a blinking screen instead of a telephone ring, the compulsion to answer is just as strong. “But he’ll be gone!” Rachel would cry, even during suppertime. To keep the chat on hold till later, kids typically write brb (be right back), which keeps them constantly on the hook. Young children do need reminding that there are other ways to chat — by phone or playdate, for instance. “Developmentally, there’s nothing harmful here, but you have to make sure IMing adds to, rather than displaces, other forms of communication,” says Schäfer. Kids also need to know that IMing shouldn’t interfere with family time — interrupting meals, games or conversations to answer a message is particularly out of line.

Set a specific time to chat
If your child knows that IMing occurs, for example, at 4 p.m. for 20 minutes only, she’ll organize dishing with friends around that time, and won’t need to run back and forth to the computer to check who’s online. “Young kids like and need structure,” Wilson says. Even though your little ones may be more IM savvy than you are, they want to know that you’re the boss. Let them know that if checking for messages becomes obsessive, you’ll switch the computer off.

Despite its risks, instant messaging can kick-start communication and deepen dialogue. “Sometimes, when you’re not face to face, it’s easier to open up,” Schäfer says. Also, you’re less likely to interrupt; instead, you wait until the other person’s message appears before you hit reply. And reading the words creates a different impact. In her experience, no child is too young to connect. “If Grandma calls to ask about their day, young kids say fine,” she says. “But when they’re IMing, they tell the truth, they get giddy. Somehow, they feel freer to divulge more.”

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