A few months ago my 14-year-old son lost his instant-messaging privileges when his report card arrived. He did not think this was fair, even though I had warned him of just such a drastic consequence.
"Oh my God! I can't believe this!" he said furiously, pacing around the kitchen with his hands on his head. "All because I got a D in Mr. Oswald's class. And he even said at the parent conference I'm doing much better now." I looked at him, this boy who now has traces of stubble above his lip, this child who has the ripped biceps of a young man and the political acumen, regrettably, of Karl Rove. I took a cleansing breath.
"Yes," I said, trying to be equitable, "Mr. Oswald did say that. But you weren't turning your assignments in, and until I see your grade come up, no instant messaging. That was the agreement. You chose it. Remember?"
Of course he remembered, but the point was this: Besides chatting on his cell phone, hanging out with his friends at the mall, or hooking up to see the latest movie, I had taken away the thing he loved next in the entire world. His connection. His lifeline. His ability to stay socially relevant. In short, his IM. He is hopelessly enslaved to instant messaging, in the way previous generations of teens were hopelessly tethered to the telephone. "You're killing me!" he shouted as I headed for the nearest landline phone to call my Internet service provider to yank his browser. Precisely.
Raising teens these days is difficult enough, but for parents of the baby-boom generation, instant messaging has made the task harder and more confusing than any of us could have envisioned. When I was in high school and a boy would call me at home, my father could pick up the receiver in the kitchen and growl, "Who is this?" and know instantly who the terrified male on the other end was. If he wanted to cut me off, he simply removed the phone from my room. (And if that was ineffective, the jack went too.) There was no automated voice-mail Internet service provider to call, no complicated service contract to negotiate.
My father also did not have to decipher bizarre screen names (surfbaboon) and foreign-seeming phonetic codes to understand who I was talking to and what we were discussing. (JuzTnye nd AnthOnY - sTA ToGeTha nd Dn't Have 2 Mani BabiEz!) He also did not have to deal with the secretive swapping of files and crass sexual jokes and the daunting reality of multiple teenagers conversing at once. At last glance, my son's buddy list stretched to more than 100 names.
"Who are all those people?" I asked him one night as he sat in his room in the dark at the computer, utterly transfixed, his fingers tapping furiously at the keys. As I stood there in the doorway every second or two a "bleep" would ring out, a signal that another virtual message was in flight, followed by a string of neon characters racing across the screen. I felt like I'd been transported to Vegas, the sensory overload was so staggering.
"Friends," he finally muttered, without looking up.
"Friends, Mom. Now can I please have some privacy?"
It's hard to grasp how deeply this revolutionary technology has permeated the lives of already tech-weary parents. Consider this: Less than a decade ago, instant messaging didn't exist. Teens were still having fairly normal conversations, not socializing in two-word grunts or in language deliberately rife with misspellings. Now instant messaging has become the preferred way for adolescents to communicate. I recently read that of teens between 12 and 14 who go online, 66 percent use instant messaging. Among 15- to 17-year-olds, the number is 81 percent.
Needless to say, many parents are operating in the dark. What, exactly, is instant messaging? And how is it different from e-mail? With screen names designed to be obscure and provocative, how do you know your kids aren't just swapping personal details with some middle-aged pervert? Just the other day a friend of mine who's a speech therapist with a 13-year-old son confessed that she has no idea what a buddy list is, much less how to find it on her son's computer.
Beyond the technical aspects, we're also confronting a thorny new world of morals. Should you monitor your teen's buddies? Should you read their messages when they're not at home? In a subculture that prides itself on rebellion and machismo, how literally should you take messages such as "you and me should hang out this Friday, and we can freeeakkinnnsmoke and drink in the parking lot"?
There are also the unresolved psychological riddles about whether instant messaging is addicting. In the meantime, should you restrict your obsessive-compulsive-prone teen to IM-ing an hour a night? What's the sensible thing to do? No one knows.
What I do know is that communication between teens and parents is fraying in ways that it never has before and that intimacy is being sacrificed for the thrill of speed and the gratification of the moment. Last night I caught my son red-handed, right here at my desk, furtively IM-ing his friends.
I doubt my son will read this, so I'm not especially worried about harming his privacy. But if by some bizarre chance he were to glance at the newspaper and see what I've written, this is what I would say to him: I LuV Ya Nd HopE 2 Tawk 2 U Soon!
Mona Gable writes for The San Francisco Chronicle.