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Buddy Lists and Mixed Messages

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Rabbi Mindy A. Portnoy says most of the parents she checks with "have no idea" how many people are on their kids' instant-message buddy lists. Chelsea Gold, above, had 140 on her list before her mother insisted she trim it. (Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)


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By Ellen Edwards
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 4, 2004; Page C09

It's no secret that trying to keep up with your computer-savvy kids isn't easy.

Even when parents think they know what's going on, chances are good they're still at least a step behind.

Take, for example, Maria Gold, who was shocked when she sat down with her daughter Chelsea and their rabbi as they prepared for Chelsea's bat mitzvah last year.

Rabbi Mindy A. Portnoy asked Chelsea, then 12, her standard set of questions: what activities she's in; what school subjects she likes; how many people were on her buddy lists -- those customized lists of screen names used for instant messaging.

"I think she said, '138, 140,' " Maria Gold recalls. "I looked at Mindy and was sort of deadpan, 'What?' Then I said, 'We need to look at that list.' Chelsea shushed me. She wasn't interested in addressing that question in front of the rabbi."

"The most interesting thing is that 75 percent of the parents have no idea how many buddies the kids have," says Portnoy, of Temple Sinai in Washington.

"I find it amusing and somewhat concerning that the parents don't have a clue," Portnoy continues. "Many parents are very computer-savvy, but they don't know what it's like to communicate as a kid."

In some households, instant messaging has generated a fundamental shift in the way kids are communicating. And it turns out that monitoring the telephone was a lot easier than monitoring the computer.

If you have an AOL screen name, you have a buddy list. It pops up when you sign on, tells you which of your friends are online.

You don't need to be an AOL member to get a screen name. Anyone can get a screen name at www.AIM.com -- AOL's free instant-messaging service. You can have up to 200 names on your list. Other Internet services such as MSN Messenger and Yahoo! also offer instant messaging, but AOL's is by far the most popular.

AOL doesn't disclose demographic information for its membership, but it does for AIM users. There are 36 million active screen names on AIM, and 25 percent are for users under 17. Two billion IMs fly through cyberspace every day -- for all ages.

Portnoy first started asking kids about buddy lists a couple of years ago at the suggestion of her son, then in high school.

"For as much as we have a lot of controlling parents, there is a secret part of their kids' lives that parents are not aware of," she says. "They don't even know to ask the question [about buddy lists].

"And the next question is 'Who's on it?' "

That was what Maria Gold wanted to know from Chelsea when they got home.

"We sat down and removed anyone from the list I didn't know," Gold says. "She would say that's so-and-so's big brother, and I would say, 'Take him off.' From the way I look at it, we are inviting people into the house. I need to know who they are."

Gold now has her house wired so that Chelsea, a seventh-grader at Georgetown Day School, and her sister, Sofia, a sixth-grader, can use their laptops from any room. However, Maria Gold gets a copy of any e-mails coming into the house.

"It's not that I read the contents, but I see who is sending things. Some people think I am invading my 13-year-old's privacy," she says, then laughs and adds, "My 13-year-old is not allowed to have any privacy."

She's joking, but the question of where to draw the line between protection and prying is real.

"It's not like I hide it," Gold says of her monitoring. "I don't open their laptops, I don't read their IMs. But it was a shock when I found out how many people she had on her buddy list. I thought maybe she had a few girlfriends, soccer friends. I was astounded."

Apparently, so are a lot of other parents.

"She loves it," says Marcy Brand of Bethesda, talking about her daughter Nikki, 13, a seventh-grader at Thomas W. Pyle Middle School. "I would guess she has about 30 people on her buddy list."

It's actually 160, Nikki says. "I have all my friends from school, camp, my elementary school. Sometimes people switch screen names. When I make a new friend I get their screen name."

"I have no idea who she is talking to," says Ann Olderman of Bethesda about her daughter Katie, 14, a ninth-grader at Walt Whitman High School. "They have names like woggo629. Is that a boy? A girl? I don't know." Olderman guessed her daughter has about 50 names on her list.

Katie says her list totals 150.

"When I meet someone, I say, 'Do you want my screen name?' or I'll ask them for theirs. On AOL there is a limit, so I have to delete some sometimes. If I'm not using them, they're just taking up space."

The good news for parents, says Peter Grunwald of the media research firm Grunwald Associates, is that his research shows "the kids who are most likely to be on buddy lists are the kids who are the 'influencers.' They are the kids who listen to the school about technology, and who are much more likely to listen to their parents and use technology with their parents."

"I think it's fine," says Chelsea of her mom's policy. "I should have my privacy, but I don't mind it. I know my friends are not going to write anything that my mom wouldn't approve of. So I'm okay with it, but I know a lot of kids who wouldn't be. They really want their privacy or their space."

Sofia doesn't have an extensive buddy list, Chelsea and her mother say.

"Ninety," says Sofia, who then adds, "Wait, I better check." Turns out she has "only" 47. But then, at 12, she is probably at the beginning of the curve for buddy acquisition. Portnoy has seen the lists double for kids between age 12 and 13.

Still, Maria Gold feels a lot better about keeping up with her daughters' buddy lists.

"Now," she says of Chelsea, "there are about 52 on her list."

The number is between 65 and 75, Chelsea says.

"After my bat mitzvah," she says, "I became closer to some people and I added people."

Join Washington Post staff writer Ellen Edwards and new media analysts Peter Grunwald and Tom de Boor to discuss kids and buddy lists at 11 a.m. on Washingtonpost.com.


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