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Teenagers learn pitfalls of passing notes at light speed

By Jake Wagman

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

ST. LOUIS -- Peer pressure, gossip and even compromising photographs have been part of high school for generations. But now that many teenage conversations have moved from school hallways to the Internet, locker room fodder can devastate young lives almost instantly.

A recent incident at Mary Institute and St. Louis Country Day School in Ladue, Mo., made that clear. When a female student consented to send a male classmate a revealing photo of herself over the Internet, the photo ended up circulating online not only among students at MICDS but also among those at many other private and public schools in the area and even across the country, her mother says.

Instant messaging "has changed everything," said Mike White, network services director at Kirkwood School District. "It's like passing notes but at light speed."

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Instant messaging -- the kids call it IMing -- allows users to maintain multiple, instantaneous real-time conversations from their computer screens. They also can use the discussion windows to transmit pictures and images, which can be downloaded and sent to anyone with e-mail access.

13 million use it

A 2001 report by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 13 million teenagers use instant messaging. Furthermore, one-fifth of all teenagers with Internet access say that instant messaging is the main way they interact with friends, the report said.

"Clearly, teens like and embrace instant messaging," said Pew Senior Research Specialist John Horrigan. "It is part of their culture."

Instant messaging is most popular among kids ages 13 to 15 -- old enough to be social but too young to drive. It has replaced the telephone, Horrigan said, and has the advantage of cutting many people in on the conversation. Affluent teens, who are more likely to have high-speed connections and their own computers, are the ones most likely to be hooked.

Some say IMing helps shy students to interact. It also can provide anonymity and a social disconnect that can lead users to act in ways they wouldn't without the veil of a screen name.

"It's gotten insane," said Brian Lewis, 16, a sophomore at Clayton High School. "There is no personal contact anymore. You can't tell what they are feeling besides those little smilies."

You can wink -- and kiss

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Those little smilies are the icons that can be inserted into IM text. You can smile. You can frown. You can wink. You can yell. You can kiss.

Then there is the shorthand ubiquitous to IM chat: JK (Just Kidding), TTYL (Talk to You Later), BRB (Be Right Back), LOL (Laugh Out Loud) and for the real funny moments ROFL (Rolling on Floor Laughing).

"I actually know people who talk like this," Brian said. "They will go around and say, 'LOL.'"

Brian and his friends no longer IM for hours at a time, in part because of the problems associated with talking to someone they might know only through a computer moniker. Several times, Brian says he was making friends with people he assumed were his own age.

"But then you get a phone call," Brian said, and it's obvious they're much older.

There are too many other pitfalls, friend Sarah Kogan added, like sending messages to the wrong person and being exposed to obscene images by strangers. She has all but left the fast-paced, mesmerizing IM community.

"I have stopped talking," Sarah, 16, said. "There is too much that can go wrong."

Sgt. Joe Laramie, an officer with the Glendale Police Department and a supervisor with the St. Louis Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, tries to teach youngsters those lessons.

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Technically, he said, the circulation of an explicit photo of a 14-year-old girl, like at MICDS, violates federal statutes, although it is highly unlikely to be prosecuted.

"This young lady trusted somebody in some form. That is the saddest part," Laramie said. "When you send a picture out, you can't get it back."

Nor can you reclaim your reputation. The girl's mother, who asked in an interview to be identified only by her first name, Julie, is considering sending her daughter away to school. Her daughter and three boys have been expelled from the school, sources say.

Julie says a male acquaintance "harassed" her daughter through instant messages for weeks, asking for increasingly explicit photos. "He was asking for specific poses," she said. "That's how bad it was." Julie acknowledges that her daughter made a huge error in judgment. But she says the instant messaging culture -- where peer pressure pops up through endless message windows -- is also partly responsible.

"It's out there," Julie wrote in an e-mail to the Post-Dispatch, "and in this day and age with our kids instant messaging with sometimes up to 15 to 20 friends at a time at night, it is simply neglectful not to talk about it."

Parental oversight

Laramie tells parents the computer should be in the family room or another open part of the house, where parents can see how long their children are online and whom they are talking with, he said. Instant messaging is especially difficult for parents to keep track of, Laramie said, because there is no browsing history or saved copy. Once the conversation is done, it's gone for good.

"I do not believe a teenager should have Internet access in their bedroom," Laramie said. "The most dangerous thing is to have a teenager be able to access the Internet at any time behind a locked door."

The MICDS freshman was using the computer in her basement, where the family has a high-speed connection.

Julie says that her daughter is, for now, done with instant messaging.

"Right now she has absolutely no desire to talk to any friend online," her mother said. "I think she has learned her lesson."

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