Instant messaging for pre-teens?
June 15, 2005 7:37 AM   Subscribe

I have an 11 year-old brother who is interested in using Yahoo Instant Messenger (or I suppose any other IM program for that matter), but my parents are a little hesitant to let him do so. And understandably so I think. Do any of you let your pre-teens use any IM programs? Is there some sort of method you have worked out for them using it? A monitoring program perhaps? Extended explanation inside.

My little bro has his own computer in his room. He doesn't have an entire free reign over the system. He doesn't have any kind of filtering program because my parents have done the responsible and have taught him the rights and wrongs and things to expect from "the internet." And honestly I hope I've convinced them to NOT use a filtering program. But if one needs to be installed, then so be it. (I'm sure one will have to be installed at some point as he gets older).

Anyway, my parents are also always around whenever he is on the computer. Maybe not in the same room, but in the same house.

Having said that, that does not mean that he doesn't get viruses and spyware on his computer. His friends email him and tell him to download such and such a game or go to this link (that has a billion popups), and he does so without thinking twice! He's a kid after all! But I think more recently its turned into "ask before you do something like that" situation. And even that isn't 100% failsafe, but it works as best it can.

So now, hopefully understanding my scenario, would you allow this child to sign onto an Instant Messaging client? My parents are not worried about him causing trouble, only trouble coming TO him. I've tried explaining that it isn't any more dangerous for him to be on IM than it is for him to be on the internet period. I've explained about chat rooms, etc. I think they are just looking for some more reassurance that it is an "okay" idea. So I thought I would ask you fine folks.

Ideas? Comments? I'll gladly provide more insight into the situation if you would like. Thanks!
posted by mrzer0 to Computers & Internet (34 answers total)
My 13 y.o. son has been using AIM for several years without any noticeable ill effects on him or on our computer. The only problem we ever had was divorcing the damn thing from the start up menu - it was extremely annoying when it appeared every time the computer booted up and I would have to say "This is his MOM" to a bunch of bored tween girls. Do note, however, that our computer is in the kitchen & shared by the whole family, so there is no privacy. I wouldn't let my son have his own computer (or TV) in his room, just because he has a tendency to play games for hours on end & being in the kitchen forces him into some sort of sociability. And I can lean over his shoulder at any time and say "What's that? Who are you talking to? Gah, stop going to B3TA!" ;-)

The vast majority of the people he talks to on IM are people he already knows from school & from camp (it's been a great way for him to keep in touch with kids from camp.) Then there are a few people he's met through online games - but if they aren't teenage boys then they are damn good imitations, and he knows better than to say where he lives, they seem to all be very far away from us, and their comments are mostly stuff like "ya WOW is teh suxxors." The internet: technology so 13 year olds can say You Suck to each other more efficiently. To be honest chat rooms scare me way more than IM and I'm very grateful that he is so completely uninterested in them.
posted by mygothlaundry at 7:54 AM on June 15, 2005

I would steer him towards MSN Messenger rather than Yahoo's client which has in-built access to paedophilic chat-rooms.
Yahoo's been getting some bad press lately over their chat service and many of their advertisers have dropped out since learning that they've been sponsoring some pretty deviant/illegal activity via the chat service.

Besides that, I'm most fond of MSN's interface. You can really slim it down and add some helpful features by installing the MSN Plus add-on + other plug-ins.
posted by Evstar at 7:59 AM on June 15, 2005

Absolutely not. He is way too young for that sort of exposure/temptation/responsibility. Especially since your parents aren't monitoring his computer usage.

The best bet would be to cut him off completely from the computer. If he insists that he needs computer time, disconnect the computer from the 'net and allow him to use that.

Not kidding.
posted by unixrat at 8:08 AM on June 15, 2005

An 11 year old should not be online without direct parental supervision. Not "in the house" but "in the same room with a view of the monitor". An 11 year old can not be counted on to make the right decision 100% of the time, they are prone to errors that could be fatal, literally.

That said, if the parent is always monitoring the use, an IM program is fine, if not, then who the heck cares anyway, he can get into chat rooms from almost any porn site, he doesn't need IM... Like unixrat said... his parents are not being responsible..... he probably shouldn't even have a computer..
posted by HuronBob at 8:21 AM on June 15, 2005

It isn't any more dangerous for him to be on IM than it is for him to be on the internet period.

posted by box at 8:22 AM on June 15, 2005

Response by poster: Unixrat,

I hear where you are coming from. He knows the computer is a priviliege. My parents have accounts on the machine as well. There is no monitoring program installed (that I'm aware of), but they monitor him through their responsibility as parents. They frequently stop in his room and check on him. Questions they can't answer they pass onto me.

Out of curiousity, are these your general feelings about the situation? Or do you also have an 11/12/xx year old that you keep off of the computer?

posted by mrzer0 at 8:23 AM on June 15, 2005

Response by poster: HuronBob,

I'm not about to start a pissing war about "oh my brother is better than your kid." But I think we as adults can all understand that kids will slip under the radar. I just don't see it being a problem (YET) with my brother. I know the day will come, as I explained I know one day in the future it will become a problem.

But at the same time you can't protect your children from everything. I don't mean that as a lax approach to parenting, its simply a truth. A kid could even slip under the radar with a parent in the same room as them! Say the parent has to take a phone call. They step out to grab the phone for 2 seconds and come right back in and who knows what havoc could have been planned on!

I don't much care to hear about whether or not my parents are responsible people because I know they are. I just want suggestions that may simply be "no, bad idea." Or "it might be okay if you use such and such a program." Because as it stands I'm not aware of any programs. I'm looking to you folks who have some experience in this area.

Did you try it and it failed? Or do you simply telling me its a bad idea?

Anyway, blah. :)

Don't get me wrong, I want all of your answers, I just want to try and help weed things out early on.
posted by mrzer0 at 8:32 AM on June 15, 2005

As a technical note, Yahoo's messenger client has logging capability built in (but turned off by default); if the parents were really concerned, they could read the logs if they wanted to. Being the kind of guy I am, I personally wouldn't do it unless I had reason to believe that my child was getting into something unhealthy.

That being said, chatting with strangers on the internet is a little safer than doing it while walking down the street. The potential for harm lies mainly, IMO, in a person's ability to convince a child to do something untoward.

To answer your question, then, I agree with you: using a messenger is about as safe as being on the internet period. Without knowing the kid in question, I couldn't say whether he should or shouldn't be allowed to use it, but I think as a general rule it's okay so long as the kid knows he's free to discuss anything that happens online with his parents. I think the greatest potential for harm starts when he believes that he has to keep a secret from his parents regarding his activities; if he never feels that need, then I think he should be fine.
posted by staresbynight at 8:45 AM on June 15, 2005

My son has been on the web since he could read. We discussed potential hazards and what information he should never release. Now he is 12 and he has been on IMs for the past two years with little to no supervision. We have had no problems that would worry a normal parent, the paranoid schizo freaks otoh...

I equate 'fear of children on the net' with 'fear of your car exploding in an accident', the scare stories are far more common than any actual incidents. The benefits far exceed the risks.
posted by mischief at 8:50 AM on June 15, 2005

The best bet would be to cut him off completely from the computer. / he probably shouldn't even have a computer..

Hahahaha! Oh, wait, you're serious?

I'm shocked that you would deprive this poor child of his lucrative tech career. My brothers fell in love with computers pre-internet and were programming by age 12 or so. That early experience has been highly beneficial to their lives and work.

I do agree that totally unrestricted web access is unwise for an 11-year-old. Mygothlaundry's kitchen-filter is a smarter option. Maybe the kid doesn't WANT to be exposed to anus!

But instant messaging with real-life buddies is no different than talking on the phone. Just set it to exclude strangers from contacting him. I use iChat (AIM) and like it muchly.
posted by naomi at 9:05 AM on June 15, 2005

An 11 year old can not be counted on to make the right decision 100% of the time, they are prone to errors that could be fatal, literally.

He could die!
posted by bshort at 9:22 AM on June 15, 2005

Well, I suppose it all depends on how much you trust him.

Why don't you sit down and discuss the issue with him? If he reacts adult enough to understand when you tell him that he should never, ever talk with strangers on the internet, and that if he *does* break that advice, he should never give out any personal information -- and that he should NEVER be too embarassed to let you know about a rude conversation that disturbs him then I think he'd be just fine.

Let him know that there are weirdos out there that want to hurt him and that's why you're being so careful.

I started chatting on BBSes when I was only a year or two older and it never ruined my life. :-D And BBSes had a lot more odd folks hanging out on them than friends on IRC/AIM/ICQ/whatever. When I started chatting my parents couldn't even turn the PC on, so for me it was 100% learning, absolutely no guidance. I think it would have been nice to have had some guidance, myself.
posted by shepd at 9:44 AM on June 15, 2005

Response by poster: Okay,

I'm liking the answers so far, and the sarcasm. I hadn't thought of the phone analogy, I definitely like that idea. And I also hadn't thought of the exclusion lists. Any more thoughts? Keep 'em coming. I plan on forwarding this thread onto my parents.
posted by mrzer0 at 9:49 AM on June 15, 2005

If you're having trouble with Spyware and the like, I'd suggest signing up for IM accounts as usual, but using a client like Trillian, which interfaces with all the major IM networks but doesn't throw any Spyware into your system, and doesn't present you with any advertisements at all.

When signing up for those IM accounts, either put in false, adult information when providing age and verification information (yes, I know, lie), or if given an option, don't offer that sort of information up at all. If the network related to the IM service provides for profile searching, you don't want a pedophile getting a hit off your brother's profile because he was honest when he answered the Date of Birth question.

Finally: Education is the key. I always refer to the Internet as the Wild West. You'd be foolish to walk outside in such an atmosphere without your six shooter in its holster and a healthy measure of common sense.

To that end: I ask that my sons stay out of chat rooms, no matter what the context. I ask that they not converse with people over IM that they don't know. I ask that they not download or install even the most innocuous looking program on their systems without my approval.

My eldest is 12 and my youngest is 9. They IM each other from across the hall while IMing all of their classmates. Everyone in each of their grade levels has IM. Most of them have cellphones as well.

It's a strange new world.
posted by thanotopsis at 10:07 AM on June 15, 2005

I like the idea of letting him use IM to talk to his friends, but not strangers. I know AIM will let you limit who can talk to you, but I don't know of any IM programs that will allow parents to set and lock those limits.

In general, I don't think IM is that dangerous. I've been online using chat and IM since I was about 12 and I've never been in danger (and I'm a girl). What helped me was that I had a good head on my shoulders (thanks mom & dad) and I knew what was safe (chatting with friends) and not safe (agreeing to meet strangers, sending photos, etc). Of course, I also had more incentive to behave because my computer was in the family office where there was usually at least one parent present, not in my bedroom.

Oh, and make sure he knows that he can get viruses from IMs as well as emails & websites.
posted by geeky at 10:17 AM on June 15, 2005

In AIM, you can block all incoming chat requests as well as popping up a dialog before accepting IMs from anyone not on your buddy list. Obviously, the kid can accept IMs or turn incoming requests back on if he wants to, though.
posted by callmejay at 10:25 AM on June 15, 2005

Response by poster: Thanotopsis,
Heh, I agree. I'm only 26 and the changes that are going on versus when I was that age (only 15 years ago) seem monumental for a child. I think that isn't a bad idea overall, putting in false informaton. I do that personally, but stay pretty close to the truth so that I'll remember later on (what I lied about on my info). I suggested using Gaim, but Trillian of course would work too!

Geeky, and everyone else,
yes, he would be IMing friend from school, some of whom are already on IM, to which my parents would bring up well if so-and-so jumped off a bridge would you do that too argument. And of course he would be IMing family. At the very least, me! :)

I discussed the possiblity of viruses and bogus links, but again that seems no different from email. Thanotopsis, Education is definitely the key, and that is why answers like yours make the most sense versus rampant paranoia. These are all issues I have discussed with my parents when talking about if my brother could use IM or not. And he has a good head on his shoulders too, as I've been trying to point out.

I think in the end I'll have to download Gaim or Trillian, get him an account, and go through the options with my parents so that they know how things should be setup. I definitely appreciate all the insight, and its hard for me to mark an answer best. I'm going to pass this along now, but feel free anyone to add any more commentary.

Thanks again!
posted by mrzer0 at 10:57 AM on June 15, 2005

I don't really see the difference between letting him have email / internet access, and having IM... You can go to chat rooms or have real-time email conversations so long as you are online, without having an IM program open. If they're paranoid about weird ideas or advice he might get from freaky online strangers, they should already be freaking out about his visiting LJ or myspace or whatever.

But personally, I'd say if he's a reasonably together kid, it shouldn't be an issue. Go over boundaries you think ought to be set before giving him access if you feel they need to be emphasized (like not sharing personal info, home addresses, etc). And again, if you want to limit any "exploration" he might do, don't leave him alone with the internet at all (whether with IM or not). Also worth remembering that kids aren't necessarily as innocent as we sometimes imagine them to be, internet or not (depends on the kid, of course, but there's no need to freak out over 'playing doctor' etc)
posted by mdn at 11:04 AM on June 15, 2005

FYI: Yahoo! and other IM systems can be set to where you receive messages only from people on your friends list. And switch them over to Firefox.
posted by deborah at 11:24 AM on June 15, 2005

mrzer0: Or do you also have an 11/12/xx year old that you keep off of the computer?

I've got a four year old and she won't be touching a net-connected computer until she's at least 16. And I work with these things everyday.

For young kids (which your 11 year old isn't anymore), I think that a computer will retard development of truly important skills like mathematics and writing/conversation skills.

For an 11 year old, releasing them onto the internet (be it IM or whatnot) is wrong because they're not ready for the brunt of it. While yours might not go looking for it, some friends of his will and they'll IM it to him or send him links. He'll peek because he's curious, as all kids are. He's not ready for all that - let him be a kid for a while longer.

If he's truly interested in programming or development, then an unnetworked machine will be just fine.

He'll probably be plugged in for the rest of his life, give him a few more years of unwired childhood.
posted by unixrat at 11:25 AM on June 15, 2005

Habbo Hotel is relatively pretty safe, deals for furni notwithstanding.
posted by If I Had An Anus at 11:41 AM on June 15, 2005

Response by poster: Unixrat,

I appreciate the followup. I also work with computers and try to pass on my "safe computing" strategies to my family. That is not to say that I know everything I'm doing. But I have been working IT for 7 years now. *shrug* Something new always arises you know? :) I trust that any problems with regards to computers that my parents would run into, they would ask me about. And what I don't know, I look into. This is another one of those things.

Programming/development is something else, but right now I don't think he shows too much interest in that. One thing that he does show a lot of interest in is video/film. (both production and editing). I have highly encouraged him going into this area because he really really seems to enjoy it. And he makes good use of his computer with it (with a Lego Movie Studio set), and he could make even more use later on with the investment of a MiniDV camera.

Anyway, obviously I'm rambling on here. But I think he does really well in school in both Math _and_ Writing. He is very creative. (and in that regard would be a good programmer ;) And I have never doubted not only his child's mind, but his human mind to explore beyond what he should be exploring. I don't think there is too much you can do in regards to that (other than the reactionary filtering). He does get outside and is active quite a bit, so turning into some overweight internet addicted user shouldn't be a problem. And of course my parents encourage him to go be active too.

Okay, I think I've rambled on enough. I'm not trying to be defensive either, I just felt I need to give everyone the full story.
posted by mrzer0 at 11:43 AM on June 15, 2005

"I've got a four year old and she won't be touching a net-connected computer until she's at least 16."

unixrat: You do know, don't you, that an in-home net-connected computer is almost mandatory for kids as early as fourth grade nowadays.

"Sorry, sweetie, but you will just have to take an F for your science project because daddy is too big a worrywart."
posted by mischief at 11:57 AM on June 15, 2005

unixrat: You do know, don't you, that an in-home net-connected computer is almost mandatory for kids as early as fourth grade nowadays.

Wow. THAT'S so not true. It's called a library?

I'm not questioning the responsibility of monitoring in the poster's household because I don't know the family or the situation. But I'm curious as to how a computer connected to the internet in a child's room could be monitored at night? Because I used to be online till the wee hours in the morning when I was a teenager.
posted by agregoli at 12:12 PM on June 15, 2005

It's called a library?

A library where? In eastern elbonia?

All the libraries I've ever seen are full of computers connected to the internet nowadays.

Yeah, there's books there. Do you think this kid is going to rush towards the books or the internet he's never been allowed to touch (whenever mom and dad are about)?

Curiosity killed the cat. Kids should be exposed to things in a controlled manner by their parents before someone else exposes them to it in an uncontrolled manner, IMHO. For the extremers out there, that goes for drugs too. You expose them to medication (Tylenol, etc) and let them know that it is safe when used properly. Then you let them know there are some drugs (Crack, etc) that are never safe. Easy.
posted by shepd at 12:42 PM on June 15, 2005

Response by poster: Heh, I was afraid this might start getting out of hand. When it comes to "how _you_ should _raise_ your child" types of questions ... whew! Holier than thou, etc. etc.

I was just looking for some straight up answers. I got them. No need for conflicts here folks :)

Perhaps I should have started my question like this:
The facts are thus:
* he will be using the computer despite your best arguments
* he would like to use IM
* etc.


When it comes down to filtering, I'm definitely going to be afraid to ask here. Heh heh. *keeps his mind open*
posted by mrzer0 at 12:51 PM on June 15, 2005

I've got a four year old and she won't be touching a net-connected computer until she's at least 16.

You'd have to lock her in a tower to achieve that - she'll get online at friend's houses, at school, at the library, at cafes, etc. I mean, I understand limiting access - just letting her use a family computer or whatever, to check email or look things up 'in public' (in the kitchen, as others have suggested, for instance) but to actually try to keep her from "touching a net-connected computer" is nuts.
posted by mdn at 12:52 PM on June 15, 2005

As long as your brother seems like he is a reasonably trustworthy kid in other areas, let him do what he wants online.

As a recent college grad with a fantastic job as a software engineer, I can honestly say that the only reason I became as interested in computers and the 'net as I did is because my parents gave me totally unrestricted access to computers and associated connectivity while I was growing up.

I was on dialup BBSs with sketchy warez and porn sections while I was still in middle school (logging in from the computer in my bedroom, no less), and I turned out just fine. I wasn't there for the bad stuff, I was there to converse and learn.

If anything, the trust given to me by my parents allowed me to consume information at my own pace. Instead of "Dad, how do I do [x]?" or "Dad, what's a good program for doing [y]?" I was forced to go out into cyberspace and find out on my own.

Then again, your question seems to revolve around your brother using the internet for primarily social purposes, and you haven't said anything about how responsible he is... but I truly believe that you shouldn't coddle otherwise responsible children when it comes to the internet. Teach them the basics and a few dos and donts and let them loose.
posted by adamk at 1:08 PM on June 15, 2005

whooooa. I'm 18. If I'd only been able to use the internet in the last two years, I wouldn't know anything.
posted by stray at 1:50 PM on June 15, 2005

A 2004 study found that 1 out of 5 kids who are "online" are approached by a stranger for sexual purposes. I guess those auto accident explosions happen much more often than you thought, eh?
posted by HuronBob at 2:11 PM on June 15, 2005

shepd, what are you talking about?

mischief's point was ridiculous, that's all. There's internet at the library, but there's also this neat thing called books that kids can be exposed to and shown how to research. Some weird people even think that books are often more reliable than the nebulous net.

Also, having a computer and internet in the home is nowhere near a "requirement" for kids. I'm sure millions of Americans could tell you that. Not even half of the country has regular access to internet.

Sure, having a computer and learning the internet is a great advantage. But it's nowhere near a NECESSITY to have it in the home for your fourth grader.
posted by agregoli at 2:14 PM on June 15, 2005

I'll say one thing- as a child, when I wasn't trusted with things like a phone in my room, it not only made them more desirable (I ended up wiring my own and hiding it), it made me less likely to behave in a trustworthy way.

I say, trust the kid, let him have IM. Trust is a much better motivator than fear.
posted by fake at 3:39 PM on June 15, 2005

A 2004 study found that 1 out of 5 kids who are "online" are approached by a stranger for sexual purposes. I guess those auto accident explosions happen much more often than you thought, eh?

I was online on AOL starting when I was about 12 years old. Only reason it took that long was I was 12 years old in 1994. Once I was in a chat room with a guy who clearly wanted to cyber or something, and you know what happened? I left. Even in those early days, I knew that guys in random chat rooms (especially random Star Trek chat rooms, lol) = creepy. So probably 1 in 5 are approached, but most of them are just like "Creepy. I'm leaving."
posted by dagnyscott at 7:20 PM on June 15, 2005

IMHO computers and the net are a great way for children to enhance their education. My understanding is that chat rooms and messenger are both risky so I can empathise with your parents concern. I personally would not let a child/teen sit at a computer without adult supervision, perhaps a computer in the family room could solve this problem. Is it possible to let your brother share an Instant Messenger identity until he is older and have his contacts listed under your parents identity should they have one, this will allow your parents to be aware of who his contacts/friends are but also give your brother the opportunity to socialise. By teaching, providing support and explaining things about the net, trust will be built.
posted by Chimp at 1:13 AM on June 16, 2005

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