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Ask Parry!

Ask Parry!

Questions and answers

Ask Parry! Ask Parry! is a service where Parry Aftab, noted online safety and privacy expert, and Executive Director of can answer your questions about online safety, privacy and security, and help you with problems you encounter online. Anything from help finding a safe chat room for your teens, to knowing what to do if the item you bought at auction doesn't arrive as promised.

Dear Parry

My children are using instant messaging. What is it? Is it safe?

A concerned mom

Dear Concerned Mom:

Ask children and teens what they do the most on the Internet and you’ll hear them chant in unison..IM! Whether it’s ICQ, AIM or any other branded technology, it’s something that kids do and parents are just starting to learn about. Instant messaging is chat, e-mail, messaging and a way to send pictures and files…all in one. You can do it online, on cell phones or using mobile devices. It pops up even when you are typing a term paper or surfing the Web. A few years ago TV Guide decided to do an article about online safety, and the journalist was shocked at learning that 100% of the young teens he asked were using instant messaging.

What many do not know, however, is that instant messaging, not chat, is used in almost every case of Internet child molestation and luring. Parents don’t understand the IM technology, and aren’t watching what takes place using IM. All it takes is a casual “hi” message form an unknown sender to get the kids to reply with their own “hi.” Often that’s all it takes.

While we don’t want to demonize instant messaging (we think it’s great!), we do want kids and parents alike to know that they can block strangers from sending them instant messages. We also want to warn parents and kids that you should never leave an away message (like an answering machine message, but using instant messaging) for when you are not online, that includes your home or cell phone number. This is an emerging problem that we can nip in the bud.

Want to know more about instant messaging safety? Check out our site and read the tips for teens and the separate one for parents. This is all about having fun online, and being safe at the same time.

Here’s something from my book, The Parent’s Guide to Protecting Your Children in Cyberspace, explaining the technology, how it’s abused and how to handle any risks.

What is Instant Messaging?
Instant messaging is real-time communication. It’s a blend of e-mail and chat (since you send one to someone and get real-time communication), but better. It’s also fast eclipsing e-mail as the most popular Internet communication tool.

How Does It Work?
On ICQ you get a UIN (Universal Internet Number), which is the ICQ equivalent of an e-mail address. That’s how others can find and contact you. (You can even chat using ICQ and send attachments like photos or documents to others.) On AOL, you use your screen name as your IM address. And AOL’s Instant Messenger and other instant messaging services use their own identifiers, including a screen name or code name.

Using instant messaging is easier than sending an e-mail because the instant messaging programs all run in the “background.” That means they can interrupt your other applications by popping the message up on your screen or flashing an icon on your task bar. When you compare it to sending an e-mail, think of it as beeping someone instead of calling them: it finds you anywhere and interrupts you, although just like when you’re beeped, you can ignore it. The other method (e-mail) works only if you answer it, like using a phone.

How Are They Abused?
When you register, the providers ask for a lot of personal information, and unless you are careful, that information may be publicly posted. That means you’ll be sharing personal information with others without even knowing it. So, make sure you read about privacy options and click on all the privacy settings, so that information you provide remains private. Also, provide only the information you have to provide, not the elective or optional information. (And always make sure you check the site’s privacy policy to make sure that whatever information you share really is kept private.)

It’s a shame that the technology that can be so helpful for productive reasons can be misused as easily for negative ones. AOL’s parental controls permit IMs only at the young teen level, and they know best.
Don’t allow your children to use instant messaging until they are old enough to use them carefully and responsibly—and you know they are following your rules. And read about how the kid sites are designing programs to give your children instant messaging capability safely. But remember that adults can sign up at most kid sites by pretending to be a child, and can communicate within that service with your child.

So, even in a kid-friendly environment, your children have to use their “stranger-danger radar.” Make sure that you have set up your child’s account to restrict strangers from being able to contact your children, and to keep their contact information private. Also, check these services’ new safety and privacy features frequently. Those features are being added regularly, and you’ll want to be able to take advantage of them.


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Parts of this Web site were taken from Parry Aftab's book The Parent's Guide to Protecting Your Children in Cyberspace. Marvel and all character names and the distinctive likenesses thereof are trademarks of Marvel Characters, Inc., and are used with permission. TM & © 2004 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved. Super Heroes is a Co-owned registered Trademark.
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