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Choices: Teens and Buddy Lists

Peter Grunwald and Tom de Boor
New Media Analysts
Tuesday, May 4, 2004; 11:00 AM

It's 3:30 p.m. Do you know who your kid is Instant Messaging online?

In some households IMing can be as intense as any telephone obsession adults may remember from their middle school and teen years. At least back then the phone was easier to monitor. This week's Choices column, Buddy Lists and Mixed Messages, examines the Internet-age phenomenon of kids and buddy lists and why parents have yet another area of their childrens' lives to monitor.


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New media research analysts Peter Grunwald and Tom de Boor, of Grunwald Associates, will be online Tuesday, May 4 at 11 a.m. ET, to talk about the story, kids online and those ever-changing buddy lists.

Grunwald has worked with electronic media for kids and parents since 1978. He is President of Grunwald Associates, a research and consulting firm in San Mateo, Calif. Two new Grunwald survey reports have just been completed: The Grunwald flagship survey, "Children, Families and the Internet" and "Schools and the Internet." De Boor has been in the development of multimedia and online services for kids for more than a decade. His work in the field began in 1987 at the Smithsonian Institution, working with Apple Multimedia Lab, Lucasfilm and The Discovery Channel to develop one of the first multimedia prototypes, Life Story. In 1990, he joined Quantum Computer Services, later known as America Online. At America Online, Tom founded three current AOL content channels (Research & Learn, Kids Only, and Parenting) and developed service offerings that were the forerunners and initial anchors of three others (Workplace, International, Teens). Prior to his involvement with kids' media, Tom was a high school math and science teacher in West Africa.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Falls Church, Va.: What can I do to keep my kids from using Buddy Lists when I'm not around?

Peter Grunwald and Tom de Boor: Well, fundamentally the best way to keep kids from using Buddy Lists when you're not around is to have a strong relationship with your child where online use is concerned, which according to our research with kids, even teens, a lot of parents do today. Surprising proportions of kids say their parents have a lot of influence over the sites they visit and, we assume, their other online activities as well. That said, many IM systems do provide you with additional tools to help with this issue. We'll address one of those momentarily.

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Arlington, Va.: Tom, I see you used to be with AOL. Does AOL do anything to make instant messaging safer for kids? Are there any parental controls on buddy lists?

Peter Grunwald and Tom de Boor: AOL does provide several IM-related tools. AOL's parental controls have long allowed parents to either allow or shut off instant messaging completely. In addition, I know that AOL's new Guardian service enables parents to know how many IMs their child is sending and how many buddies their child has accessed on their buddy list. I don't believe either the content of the IMs or the names of buddies accessed are available to the parent, but the child is made aware that Guardian is turned on, which makes them aware that you know something of their activities. But since I don't currently work for AOL and may not know all the tools they currently have available, I'd encourage you to visit keyword: parental controls on AOL, if you're an AOL subscriber.

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Washington, D.C.: From reading the column, I didn't really get the sense that instant messaging is really posing any danger -- at least for the kids mentioned. They're just IMing other kids.

Are there any cases of them contacting or being contacted by strangers or anyone else with less than honorable intentions?

Peter Grunwald and Tom de Boor: Yes, there are instances where kids are contacted by unsavory people, though when this happens it is usually via chat rooms. Of course, this also happens over other channels, not just online, and it is probably much rarer than some media coverage implies. Parents should talk to their kids about taking common-sense precautions such as not giving out their screen names to those they don't know, and being careful about strangers - just as in the non virtual world.

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Silver Spring, Md.: I am just amazed at the number of "buddies" these kids have on their lists. Are they all first-hand friends or do buddy lists get shared around from kid to kid -- is there some sort of competitive edge to see who can have the most buddies?

Peter Grunwald and Tom de Boor: We don't know statistically whether there is sharing of names, but anecdotally and based on some of our other research, I'd be surprised if most kids are trying to accumulate the longest lists, though I wouldn't be surprised if some are doing this. We know for example that there's a great deal of interest among kids in some form of IM communications manager, which suggests at least some widespread interest in the ability to *limit* the number of people who can IM them. We've also heard that many kids maintain multiple identities in order to restrict the number of people--presumably their closest friends--who have access to their "true identity" I think these lists are generally people who the children actually "know," either in person or online.

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Ellen Edwards: In talking with these kids for this story, I found that this is the way they introduce themselves to others. Instead of giving phone numbers, the give screen names. One mom told me she often heard other kids shouting them across the soccer field to a new friend. It's the main currency of their communication these days.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Do you think it is a good idea to let your kids have computers in their room?

Peter Grunwald and Tom de Boor: We're not comfortable providing parenting advice (dealing with our own youngsters is enough of a challenge), but it is worth noting that kids get the most out of computers if parents are with them at least some of the time. This is especially the case with younger kids. And our research shows that Internet use is much less isolating than some have claimed.

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Ellen Edwards: Why are kids drawn to IMing instead of using the phone?

Peter Grunwald and Tom de Boor: I don't statistically know the answer to this, but I think there are potentially a lot of different reasons for it. For one, we think kids are finding instant messaging fits better into the multitasking milieu that they enjoy. They want to enjoy many media simultaneously and IMing while doing other things is easier than talking on the phone while doing other things (if for no other reasons, in many cases, than that it requires only one phone line). You can carry on conversations with many more people simultaneously by IM than by phone, you have a broader reach of people you can communicate with by IM, you can think about what you're saying (so as to avoid the mortification of saying something stupid), you can tune out people IMing you who you don't want to deal with (the electronic equivalent of "you're breaking up"), you have some level of anonymity and distance, etc. etc. Plus there's still some novelty to it and in some cases some distance from mom and dad's understanding.

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Arlington, Va.: I confess I don't see what the commotion is about. I have a hundred people in my cell phone address book. Hundreds more in my e-mail address book. Do I call or e-mail all these people frequently? No. It's an address book, a way of keeping track of people's contact information. I would imagine these kids would say the same thing: it's like an address book. Their parents probably have as many, or more, people in their own pencil-and-paper address books.

Peter Grunwald and Tom de Boor: We agree that some of the commotion may be a bit exaggerated. However, buddy lists are not precisely like address books (in fact many users have an electronic address book in addition to a buddy list). A buddy list tells you when a friend or colleague is online, and therefore available for instant messaging, assuming the friend wants to be "seen."

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Clifton, Va.: Enjoyed the article. Very hot topic in our house. Have tried to approach subject with 13-year-old daughter and she gets very defensive. She is a good kid not into any trouble A/B student, not very social, have no reason to be suspicious. Should I push the issue or let it lie until something happens? How can I monitor the e-mail? The codes give no indication who the person is and when asked she says it is so & so.

Thank you

Peter Grunwald and Tom de Boor: A tough issue. We have different perspectives on it, maybe reflections of differences in our own parenting styles. And we have to say upfront that we are not parenting experts by any means Peter thinks you absolutely ought to push the issue with your child from a position of trust--you ought to know what your 13 year old is doing and she shouldn't be defensive. My position, from our research, is that in general this generation of kids is pretty careful and pretty mindful of their parents wishes, to the extent that I suspect that they do a lot of self-censorship on their own based on what they think their parents will or will not accept. But I guess even for me, it bothers me that she's being defensive (in light of the above), though i don't know what you are saying to her or how often and whether that would make me feel defensive as well.

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Ellen Edwards: Lots of parents set some sort of limits--say no IM'ing after 9 p.m., or none until homework is done. The parenting experts I have talked to all encourage some sort of limit setting--your child will ultimately understand that you are doing that because you care about them, not just for a whim. Individual parents need to deal with their individual child--you know generally how much limit setting your child needs and it may be more or less than others. Having a dialogue remains the single most important part of this--so your child knows she can come to you if there is an issue or something scary online.

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Washington, D.C.: Is there any anecdotal evidence about kids cheating on homework via instant messaging?

Peter Grunwald and Tom de Boor: Well personally I don't think collaborating on homework is always cheating; in many casee, it's preparation for the workplace. But that said, yes, given that large percentages of kids use the Internet every week for "small homework assignments" as opposed to "school reports," and use it for a wide variety of subjects, including subjects where the Internet as research vehicle is less helpful, you've got to assume that when kids go online for "small homework assignments" some of it involves talking with other kids. When I was at AOL, running AOL's homework help services, we handled more than 1 million questions a week from kids.

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McLean, Va.: "you can think about what you're saying (so as to avoid the mortification of saying something stupid),"

Yeah, gentlemen, I think this is a HUGE part of why pre-teens and teens prefer IMing to telephoning. However, aren't they just postponing the inevitable? Better to learn to converse on the fly (and recover from embarrassing missteps and/or misstatements) when you're young. Otherwise you might wind up a 20-something guy who can hardly hold up half of a conversation in person. (I've seen it happen!)

Peter Grunwald and Tom de Boor: Very interesting point, but let me play devil's advocate on it in a couple of different ways. First of all, as a generation that grows up with these means of communication, to the extent that they continue to interact with each other going forward as a generation, they may not have to deal with "the inevitable," at least not as much as we think. Second, whatever else one might think about IMing, it involves reading and writing, and we have at least as much of a problem in this country with people not being able to read or write as converse on the fly. This is why the first group of teachers to embrace the Internet were not math or science instructors, but English teachers. Third, no matter how much IMing they may be doing, during the course of the day today's teens still have to do a fair amount of off-the-cuff conversing (e.g. in school) to keep those skills fresh.

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Falls Church, Va.: I don't know what types of parenting controls AOL has in place, but a simple solution seems to be the need of a second, parent registered password. Then the parent would have to provide the password for their kids to sign on. Perhaps the parent password could be required every half hour (or whatever a parent could set) so that the parent can have some say (and knowledge of) when and how long their kids are im'ing.

Peter Grunwald and Tom de Boor: We think that if you had a tool like this, it would get old pretty fast. You'd be in the position of the parents who are getting hit up every day by their kids for their credit card info (a surprising number, by the way), only many times worse. Our research suggests that this generation of kids is, in general, pretty responsive to and influenced by their parents when it comes to online use, so we'd suggest such draconian measures aren't necessary. Since you referenced AOL, we'd say AOL Guardian, which allows parents to track at least the quantity of email, IM, and buddy list use, would be a better solution to the problem. Knowing that their parent has access to that info should be enough of a check for most kids who might be tempted to go overboard with respect to IM or buddy list use.

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Fairfax, Va.: Here is just another view from a parent of older teens -- one college age and one in high school. Another main reason kids like IM instead of the phone is they can chat at all hours without being detected. I have heard stories of good kids who come in by curfew time, get online and chat all night long. I am and have been VERY concerned about IM for quite some time. There are software programs available that will allow you to track their conversations, although I understand there's an issue there with whether or not that is an "OK" thing to do.

Maybe parents of young teens do not have to worry about this communication tool yet -- but there is potential for trouble when everyone can communicate with each other, undetected at all hours of the night.

Peter Grunwald and Tom de Boor: It sounds like there's several issues here. One is the use of the net to communicate quietly to avoid curfews - in contrast to the telephone. Another other issue is the level of control over who the kids talk to and what they say. Both relate to parenting philosophy and your views as to when a kid should be trusted to make some of these judgements for him/herself. Regarding software and other parental control tools some of them are built in to the IM systems from different providers, and some can be obtained as third party software. We haven't reviewed individual software packages, since our survey research focuses on family net uses, wants and needs.

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