‘Cool’ can change in IM instant for teens

April 8, 2006 at 2:57 am

Published: Saturday April. 08, 2006

By BUZZ McCLAIN

Special to the Star-Telegram

“Dad, I want IMMMMMMMMMM!”

The note was from my 11-year old daughter, via e-mail, sent from her mom’s laptop in the next room. It’s how the modern family communicates.

Not really, but Samantha knew it was a sure way to get my attention and get me working on it. Things sent by e-mail get done, just as surely as putting a grocery item on the refrigerator marker board means it will get purchased on the next trip to the store.

IM stands for Instant Messaging, and it’s been around since the ’70s, when co-workers at enlightened businesses would communicate from office to office on their PCs — most likely run by floppy discs, the truly floppy kind. Remember them?

But now IM has broken out of the workspace and into the home, and I’m just a little late coming to this party because there are some 250 million IM users online, and I’m not one of them. I guess I missed the memo.

But Samantha got it, and in most homes IM is a generational thing, like MySpace and DreamLife; naturally it’s the kids that get hip to any innovation before the geezers in the house.

The only thing I knew for sure about IM was that some kids use it, in their parents’ opinions, too much. Kids can spend hours at the PC e-mailing their classmates and friends and getting instant responses in very conversational language. Conversational because IM truly is instant. The second you end your typing the other person has it, along with any goofy graphics, emoticons and photos you want to send.

So, in my mind, IM was just a modern version of the princess phone that my sister spent hours on every night talking with her girlfriends about boys, tying up the house’s single phone line — with no busy-signal answering service — from after dinner to bedtime (and, secretly, beyond bedtime).

But it turns out, the princess phone analogy is not exactly accurate. Let’s bring in the expert.

“IM doesn’t replace the telephone or cellphone,” says Gary Rudman, president and founder of GTR Consulting in San Francisco. His new yearlong study of 100 “trend-setting teens” ages 14 to 18 came out Monday in a book called The gTrend Report.

“IM is a way of continuing a conversation while doing other activities — like talking on the phone or playing video games or watching TV or maybe even hopefully doing their homework — maybe all at the same time.”

Rudman points out that teens no longer set trends — electronic devices do.

“Teens are forced to adopt, adapt and then advance,” he says. “They have to adopt whatever the thing is, adapt to it as fast as they can and then advance because the next thing is coming out and changing their world instantly.”

He calls them “the Flux Generation.” “They can never settle down and be happy with what they have; there’s always something new just around the corner,” he says.

And it’s not just “something,” it’s more than likely to be “somethings.” And new devices don’t always replace the current ones; they just get added to the pile. And that has consequences.

“IM is part of what we call a ‘brain blur,’ the idea that teens are rarely able to commit fully to any one of these activities,” says Rudman. “They have difficulty focusing on one task alone. Each new device that comes out that requires teens to manage another input increases the fragmentation of their brain’s ‘bandwidth.’ It’s kind of stressful.

“Right now you have the computer, the push-talk cellphone as well as the normal cellphone, you have the SideKick, you have the home phone, you have instant messages, e-mail, pagers, online communities, blogs, message boards and so on. And they’re trying to manage all this and be up to the minute and it’s so extraordinarily difficult and it becomes very, very stressful.”

But just try to take one of those devices away from someone who has adopted and adapted — now that causes stress. “If you go to bed before 2 a.m. and something happens after that, you’re out of the loop the next day at school,” Rudman says. “It’s changed the nature of teen development and social interaction.”

But you can’t explain this to the kids. You can try, but they won’t understand. “Teens just see this as the way things are,” he says. “They are used to the idea that new technology and communication devices are coming all the time. And they’re usually things they must have almost instantly. Look at the iPod. It was a generation before everyone had the television; it was months before everybody had the iPod. And then a month later, a new one came out.”

Is there a possibility that someone somewhere will say enough is enough, that the brain bandwidth is overloaded, that the inputs are all connected to something and there are no outlets for anything new? Can there be a backlash against all this rushing technology?

“Marketers could offer ways to unplug, but it’s got to be very safe in terms of social acceptability,” says Rudman. Not safe as in not dangerous, but a safe bet for companies looking for a niche. “It’s a balancing act. If they can give teens a way of unplugging, they have to be careful how they do it.”

In other words, it has to be cool.

Postscript: Samantha now has two IM accounts, at Yahoo! and AOL’s free AIM. Details another day as soon as she figures out which friends have compatible services.


Weekend Techie Buzz McClain writes for Video Business magazine.

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