Teens’ lifeline: ‘Net-working’

December 2, 2004 | By Sheba R. Wheeler

Madison Ryckman is in a slump, stuck at home after Thanksgiving, no friends in sight and a driver’s permit away from freedom.

Twenty years ago, this 15-year-old might have sought escape tying up the household’s only telephone line for hours on end. Ten years ago, she may have written a few e-mails. But today, just give her two minutes and a few clicks on a slender new iBook laptop perched on her thighs, and this teen is connected to a social life through instant messaging that few over 30 have learned to appreciate.

It’s not that instant messaging, or IMing as it’s called, is new. The Internet application has been around since the late 1990s, allowing real-time communication with anybody on a buddy list who is online.

But research shows that teenagers, from middle-school youths to college-age students, are using instant messaging more than any other group.

Teens always are quick to capitalize on new technology. But a closer look at how they choose to use it offers insight to what this generation values: immediacy, developing and maintaining communication with peers, multitasking and self-expression.

“It’s like you are really connected to the entire world,” says Ryckman, a sophomore studying drama at the Denver School of the Arts. “I mean, really, who isn’t online? If you aren’t on, you could miss something.”

A study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project shows that youths ages 12 to 17 are online more than adults and spend more time every day instant messaging. Data collected in 2001 showed 78 percent of teens had access to the Internet, compared with 50 percent who had a cellphone.

What makes instant messaging cool among teenagers is “presence,” the idea that there’s always someone out there available to talk with.

The first thing many teens do at home is get to the computer, connect to the Internet and check their buddy list to see who else is signed on.

Using traditional methods of communication might result in a busy signal on the phone or usage fees on a cell. It could take hours or even days before someone responds to an e-mail. Only trading IMs gives users the sense of back-and-forth conversation with one friend or five, instantly and privately.

But the allure can be like a siren’s call. Teens readily admit that instant messenging is a distraction they welcome, especially during tedious history readings or math projects.

Youth ages 12 to 17 with home Internet are online each day for nearly an hour. Because of that, many parents require homework be done before instant messaging is allowed, says Neil Howe, a historian demographer and co-author of “Millenials Rising: The Next Great Generation.”

And is it important for friends to know you are taking a shower or having dinner with your family?

“The lack of individuality and the need to be beholden to your peers would frighten most boomers,” Howe says.

The scene replayed inside the Ryckman living room is one many parents recognize. A repeat of the MTV show “Cribs” is turned up loud on the TV. A techno song from “The Faint” blares from Madison’s laptop. A cell phone is on the floor near her hip and a backpack filled with homework—including a research paper on suicide and a math project—is tossed to the side.

When Larry Ryckman hears a squeal from his daughter, he knows she’s talking to her friends. A screen name on Madison’s buddy list is highlighted.

“Oh my God! Julia is on. I love her. She’s a freshman and she’s really cool.” A message screen pops up allowing Madison to rapidly type a greeting to Julia. She’s happy to find that Julia’s dad says it’s OK for the girls to have a sleepover.

“We are going to have to discuss how much homework you’ve got first, Maddie,” her father says while making waffles in the kitchen.

Madison rolls her eyes and types a quick response to her friend: “Probably not gonna be able to make it this weekend.”

She grunts and sighs, disappointed that a friend named Marlena has an away message saying she’s online but talking on her cell phone. “It bothers me when she does that,” Madison says. “I can’t talk to her.”

A few seconds later another friend, Jess, pops a message on the screen, relaying drama about an ensuing boyfriend problem.

“Instant messaging is where I get to shrink my friends,” Madison says.

She pauses every few seconds to respond to IMs. While she waits, she surfs the Internet or picks a new song to listen to from one of the hundreds she has downloaded.

Staying connected

“The whole point of presence is to create a community,” says Amanda Lenhart, a Pew research specialist. “Even if they aren’t at their computers, teens will leave away messages letting people know how they can be reached because of their need to say ‘I’m here. I’m still a part of this group. Don’t forget about me.”’

That’s important for this particular youth culture that is more connected 24/7 than any other generation in history, says Howe.

Boomers popularized the personal computer in the late 1970s as a means of separation and individuality. Gen Xers dug the Internet because of its anonymity.

Howe says Millennials, born in or after 1982, perceive the technology more like their grandparents did when mainframes were in vogue during the GI generation. Those massive structures were a symbol of big government, middle class and mainstream mentalities that didn’t allow people to be different, but brought them together.

“The most salient characteristic of this youth generation is emphasis on group and team togetherness, and that’s exactly what their grandparents believed in,” Howe says. “It’s unacceptable for teens to have an excuse not to be plugged all the time. To the boomers, that’s the ultimate Orwellian existence.”

The lure of instant messaging seems to kick in about sixth grade, a pivotal time when family relationships begin to take a backseat to friendships.

That’s when Joshua, 11, started begging his father Greg Coffey, 45, to get instant messenging. A month and a half later, Joshua’s buddy list had grown to 23 friends who attend schools all over Denver.

“It’s like candy, an addiction. It’s hard to get them off,” says Coffey.

Joshua hangs out with close friends at school, but the people he talks to online are often friends of friends.


“Sometimes it’s hard to start a conversation with people when you meet them the first time,” Joshua says. “But once you get their screen name, it’s easier to talk to them online because you don’t have to be tense or worry about saying the wrong thing.”

Instant messaging plays an important part in helping youths form identities, says Susannah Stern, a University of San Diego assistant professor specializing in youth media studies.

“Kids are using it to enhance their reputations by appearing to be affiliated with a lot of people,” Stern says. “A buddy list can indicate how popular you are…. If someone IMs you and it takes them 10 minutes to get back to you, there’s this validation that they are busy. There’s a lot of maneuvering in terms of enhancing social status.”

IMing becomes a tool for social planning, as well as a major source for multi-tasking.

“I personally do a lot of homework, research, read articles on line, talk on the phone and carry on multiple IM conversations all at once,” says Molly Barrett, a 17-year-old senior at George Washington High School.

Keeping a smaller, tight-knit group of two or three close friends is what matters to juniors or seniors.

IMing picks up again during college for students like Jeanne Doyle, a 19-year-old freshman at CU-Boulder, who tries to stay in touch with friends who have moved away, haven’t graduated from high school yet or new friends she’s met on campus.

“Instant messaging becomes less important when you become more comfortable with who you are,” Barrett says.