Avoiding the awkward

Elizabeth didn’t know what happened. One day she and Kylie were best friends and the next day, nothing. No visits to her locker or walks to Quizno’s after school. Clearly, something had changed and Elizabeth needed to get to the bottom of it. Her first move was to the keyboard. She instant messaged Kylie to ask what was wrong.

“Are we still BFF?” she typed.

Of course, a few minutes of typing resolved this youthful case of insecurity and Elizabeth and Kylie were again best friends forever. A more focused look at this scenario, however, brings to light a much larger issue for kids today and their future as effective communicators.

A recent survey conducted by AOL and the Associated Press reveals that more than 40 percent of teens use instant messaging (IM) to evade awkward, in-person conversations. While the real-time nature of instant messaging satisfies children’s cultural need for instant gratification, the long-term effects of addressing OMG moments (that’s"oh my God” in IM-speak) over the Internet instead of speaking face-to-face is a concern for many parents and professionals alike. Will the avoidance of critical social interactions affect the success of our children as they approach adulthood?

Scientifically speaking, the jury is still out on the lasting ramifications of replacing the old-fashioned, red-cheeked, gosh-I-wish-I-wouldn’t-have-asked-that rejection for a safer, less confrontational cyber rebuff. The technology is so new that no formal studies have yet been published. Because of this, it’s important for parents to set aside their conceptions of the highly publicized dangers of the Internet and stay positive and supportive of their child’s new online lifestyle.

Brad Hevron, principal of Indian Knoll Elementary School in West Chicago, feels children are not intentionally avoiding these crucial conversations, but are simply influenced by their environment."I want to give the kids credit. They are simply following the lead of their peers. Yes, kids today are creating a blurred line between personal and social communication with instant messaging, but they are not doing it to be spiteful.”

Hevron, a parent of two teens, is one local school administrator tackling the IM issue head on."As a school, what is our responsibility and accountability on this topic? I feel this is a community issue worth addressing,” he says. Hevron recently sent a memo to all parents of the school informing them of the realities behind online messaging and Internet personas.

The AOL/AP survey also discloses that more than 20 percent of teens use IM to ask romantic interests out to public events like the movies or bowling, taking the social tension out of the asking process. Jessica Lippman, assistant professor at Northwestern Medical School and 30-year veteran of child psychology, warns"communicating through typed words may avoid potential embarrassing moments, but it does not foster development of the skills necessary in handling difficult times.”

It turns out Britney Spears’ move to inform her then husband Kevin Federline of their impending divorce over her Blackberry wasn’t as unique as some assumed. The survey also states that 13 percent of IMers use it to break off relationships as well.

With all the negative press circling around IM, what do the creators of the instant messaging tools that allow our children to bypass life’s most embarrassing, but potentially character-building, moments have to say?

AOL’s Web site posts this message about the survey:"Instant messaging has made its way into so many areas of our lives and we can now take our buddies with us wherever we go. Whether on our mobile phones, our social profiles or on the desktop at work, our friends, family and co-workers are right there letting us know when they’re free for a question or just to chat,” wrote David Liu, senior vice president of AOL."This survey also found that instant messaging is truly helping people become more productive and better manage their relationships wherever they may be.”

All spin aside, Lippman feels"people are losing the art of conversation.”

She attributes this loss to the shortcut and sound byte mentality of our culture, but more directly to parental detachment."How parents handle any situation with their child, whether it has to do with the Internet or not, will affect how the child handles their online relationships. A basic component of socialization is that humans learn through face-to-face interaction and kids get that from their parents.”

So, at what age do kids generally start instant messaging? According to a Canadian study, as early as 8 years old, but Hevron feels that number may be a little low. In his experience, kids generally begin electronic communication around 11. The number and intensity of conversations generally increase as the child moves into their later teens, but even the youngest IMers are finding that talking with their friends online meshes nicely within the rigors of school, extracurricular activities and home life. The tools kids use to communicate vary. Some use their home computer, some a laptop, while others use their cell phone or hand-held device. The most popular computer applications include AOL Instant Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger and Google Talk.

What should you be doing to ensure your child understands what conversations are and aren’t appropriate for IM?

“First of all, don’t take the extreme approach and forbid IMing. It can be alienating and there is, in fact, a right way to do it. But most of all, talk to your children often,” says Paddy Greenwall Lewis, co-author of Divorcing with Children: Expert Answers to Tough Questions from Parents and Children, who is an expert on approaching thorny conversations with your children.

“Some children are shy and this medium is perfect for helping them avoid coming out of their shell. As a parent, you need to encourage your children to interact in person with their friends.”

Lewis, like Lippman, says parents set the example for their children. Are you a parent who works on their laptop at the kitchen table or has a hard time prying the Blackberry out of your hands while watching a show on TV with your children? Do your kids see you address tricky life situations head-on or do you hide behind e-mail or the phone? Don’t just talk to your children, the experts say, be the example.

As we follow the trajectory of technology’s influence on the Elizabeths and Kylies in our lives, it is imperative to reflect on our own childhood influences and realize that we are living in a new time.

Cheri Pistilli of Plainfield, whose 12-year-old daughter is a frequent IMer, summed it up best:"I’m happy my daughter is reaching out to her friends over the Internet, but as I tell her, all things in moderation.”

Chris is a father, husband and writer in Winfield. He has worked in technology for more than 15 years and specializes in online business communication. Check out his Web site at www.chrisbonney.com.

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