AOL Instant Messaging
Contributor: Julianne Staine
Away messages, screen names, and excessive emoticons: these were several characteristic components of the AOL instant messenger service, or “AIM”, that became the primary initial attraction to Internet use by my generation. While emoticons were fun, and away messages that allowed you to tell your friends exactly why you’re not responding to their instantaneous thoughts were enticing, the greatest lure of AIM was its facilitation of immediate collective interaction with your peers without the usual amount of parental or other adult supervision. No longer were we restricted to phone calls on land lines monitored by parents. In this pre-cell phone era, AIM had revolutionized communication in the pre-teen/teenage age group. AOL Instant Messenger has since been replicated in numerous fashions by programs such as IChat, Google Chat, Yahoo Messenger, Skype, and Facebook Chat. But whether or not AIM was the first of its genre, it was the most popular, especially in the early 2000s when AOL was one of the most popular uses of dial-up Internet. AIM was a chat application that allowed the participants to communicate in real time. Kids would create buddy-lists named things like like “school” and “family” and then their school friends’ screen-names would appear within their “school” buddy-list. It marked the beginning of social networking among tweens and teens alike.
Until this point when AIM emerged as a fad amongst my age group I had led a relatively unsheltered life. Not that I was exposed constantly to inappropriate things for a 12 year-old, but since I had normal child-like interests and relatively trusting parents, I had never been prohibited from watching or experiencing anything that all my friends were also participating in. But AIM became the exception to the rule. My mom was not just slightly wary about my Internet use due to AIM; once she became aware of it, she was strongly opposed. AIM was the only medium at the time where children of this age could communicate without parental supervision. It also introduced a whole new set of threats that the parental generation had never experienced: online predators, cyber bullying, etc. My mom had heard the horror stories of kids being bullied by their peers and did not want me to be a victim nor a participant. She was not alone. Many other parents had very similar concerns, as well as teachers of the school I attended at the time. The teachers would hear kids’ chatter about the dramas unfolding online and become concerned that the problem of bullying, though typically dormant but still present in the classroom, was going to increase greatly with this new device because of the lack of parental presence that usually kept kids somewhat in line. The moral panic generated by this breakaway from parental supervision happened so abruptly due to this new technology that there was little time to act.
Oren Yaniv recently wrote an article for the New York Daily News about Principal Nadia Lopez of a middle school in Brooklyn who recently created a class that educates students on social networking. The class was intended to provide kids with knowledge that will help deter cyber bullying and to end kids’ naiveté regarding online predators. “Lopez saw firsthand how online gossip can explode into real-life violence last May when she tore a ligament in her neck breaking up a fight between two girls that started on AOL Instant Messenger.” Violence such as this led Lopez to create this class for kids, and the idea is now sweeping the nation. Though this class is now geared more towards education for social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter since the phenomenon of instant messaging has ceased, the principle is the same. The moral panic towards uncontrolled Internet use and Social Networking still exists. In fact, the moral panic in regards to AIM usage was in actuality foreshadowing the even greater panic towards the previously mentioned Facebook and Twitter. These social networking sites increased the vulnerability of kids since their pictures, friends, and personal thoughts were now available to the World Wide Web if the proper precautions were not taken. And as the popularity of Facebook increases, the minimum age for use decreases. Every new generation of kids becomes more and more knowledgeable of the Internet and technology. And thus, as one advocate argues, “The risks to children from social networking at an early age are numerous…As pedophiles become more technologically sophisticated, they’re able to find and connect with kids easier than with previous methods.’”
A prevalent question is whether the benefits of social networking outweigh its negative consequences. Did my mother’s restriction on my Internet use as a 12-year-old transform me into a socially awkward person who will forever resent my mother? No, in my case, but the problem is that kids at age 12, or even my current age of 18, are constantly faced with the fear of exclusion. At age 12 that was my greatest fear. I wanted to fit in with my classmates and therefore I wanted a screen name, a buddy list and to stay up until 10:30 secretly talking to my best friend about what we were going to wear to Peter’s bar mitzvah on Saturday night. But more importantly, I think the main reason why I wanted AIM so badly was because I could not have it. I had this illusion that as soon as my mom said I could partake in this social network I would instantly have a million new friends. And in 7th grade when my mom relented and allowed me to get an account, this did not happen. While I did partake in a several years of AIM abuse, once I was granted this privilege it became a lot less significant than it seemed beforehand.
So, do I now see my mother’s perspective? Yes. But I still think that the parents’ choice to exclude kids from fads because of moral panics is often the wrong course of action. Kids will always want to rebel, as it is just their nature. And while I did not have the gumption, many of my fellow AIM-restricted classmates just obtained screen names behind their parents’ backs. The problem with actions such as this is that now, if the kid experienced a problem on the Internet, he or she would not vocalize it to their parents. Secrecy between children and parents is what leads to problems and so I instead suggest that while moral panics will undoubtedly continue, especially in regards to Internet use, that parents set guidelines upon their children rather than withhold it from them entirely. This course of action will lead to open communication, less resentment and a generally more sensible situation. And the kid in question will be a part of the crowd, which at the awkward age 12 or 13 is all that they really want.
 Oren Yaniv, “The ‘Social’ in Studies. ‘Kids May Have Street Smarts but Internet Smarts is a Whole Different Story,’” New York Daily News (New York City), October 14, 2010, Lexis Nexis Academic.
 Byron Acohido, “Advocates: Kids often vulnerable online; Apps, social media open door to privacy invasions, pedophiles,” USA Today, September 7, 2011, final edition, Lexis Nexis Academic.