IM addicted: The dangers and benefits of instant messaging

Tim Pappas

familiar sound. It’s the college staple of communication, the means by which you actually have conversations with dozens of people at one time. Typically termed AIM or IM, 90 percent of all college students need it, use it, want it and are addicted to it. AOL started the free service in 1993, and three years later coined the concept of a “buddy list.” Now, 34 million people subscribe to the service.

In the fast-paced college environment, sometimes even e-mail is not quick enough. There is no way of knowing know if people will read your message in the next hours, days or even weeks. And they may not reply quickly to the e-mail. Instant messaging, IM offers more immediate gratification. Simliar to e-mailing, instant messaging has changed the way we communicate. By logging online a person can talk with anyone across the globe. It is easy to signup for a free account and create a screename. Screennames can have personal meanings or funny connotations attached to them. They may represent a hobby or simply be someone’s name with a number.

Instant message takes multitasking to a new level. While older generations may still be struggling to turn on their computers, young children can be found talking to five different people on IM, having a conversation on the phone, eating a bag of Skittles, watching TV, surfing the Internet, listening to MP3s and doing homework all at the same time. Senior communications major Shanna Kurek loves being able to communicate online. “IM is great because it constantly keeps you connected with all your friends,” she said. “Now since I am off campus I have lost touch with many of those people that I normally don’t see or call.” IM helps her keep in touch these individuals.

Senior chemistry major Maurice Marsini agrees. “IM is still as useful as when I was living on campus, but now I’m off-campus and at our house we have the hot DSL hook-up,” he said. “The speed combined with my new wireless laptop enables me to be online as much as I want to talk to all my buddies.”

Another advantage of IM is that you always know where your friends are, thanks to “away messages.” People usually leave away messages to let their friends know what they’re doing or where they are when they’re not on IM.

But away messages can also be dangerous. Some people have been followed and “watched” through IM. “IM stalkers” can get information about a person’s habits – such as when he or she usually eats in the dining hall. While it may be an in But away messages can also be dangerous. Some people have been followed and “watched” through IM. “IM stalkers” can get information about a person’s habits – such as when he or she usually eats in the dining hall. While it may be an innocent way for some to bump into a crush, for others it can cause serious problems. To avoid this it is important to be careful about what information is included in profiles and away messages.

So what is the benefit of talking through your fingertips? Some researchers believe this form of communication is transforming the way people use language. Others wonder if IM is causing people to revert back to the primitive language of cavemen.

When people “speak” in pictures or symbols called emoticons (letters and symbols used to express emotions), they are using a language similar to pictures. Primitive men and women wrote symbols on the wall as a set language everyone could understand.

Today’s IM language is different from spoken English. Abbreviations such as ttyl (talk to you later), brb (be right back) and lol (laugh out loud) have become common vernacular. This language is full of symbols and abbreviations, which are similar to the set language used thousands of years ago.

Even away messages relate back to primitive language. Today people come back to their computers to see if anyone has written to them. In the same way, some of our earliest ancestors returned to their caves to see if new symbols were added to their walls.

Instant messaging has made some areas of daily life more flexible, and many people are becoming addicted to being online. This distraction can be detrimental to grades and social activity. Some researchers even go so far as to qualify the addiction as a disease much like that of alcoholism or drug abuse.

Besides the danger of addiction, IM threatens to make communication too impersonal. On IM, people do not see the faces or hear the voices of the people with whom they are communicating.

The only features seen on IM are the assorted yellow faces that people use to express emotions. Without seeing or hearing the other person, “Novachild03” loses his or her sense of distinction from “Pinkflower99.”

Most people have found themselves talking to someone online only to find out that it was someone else using the screen name. The original person’s screen name has in effect lost its identity. IM can lead to a lack of trust and feeling of insecurity. On the phone, you can at least hear the person’s voice.

Of course, technology is always moving forward and it won’t be long before you’ll be able to see people writing their Instant messages. But for now, as researchers weigh the pros and cons and scientists try to improve computer chatting, the Dlunk! … DiddlyUNK will just have to do.