Sure, instant messaging is fast and efficient. But for many teenagers in the US, it is also a great way to avoid embarrassing face-to-face confrontations.
More than four in 10, or 43 percent, of US teens who instant messages (IMs) use them to say things they wouldn't say in person, according to findings from an Associated Press-AOL poll released yesterday. Twenty-two percent use IMs to ask people out on dates or accept them, and 13 percent use them to break up.
"If they freak out or something, you don't see it," said Cassy Hobert, 17, a high school senior from Frenchburg, Kentucky, and an avid IMer who has used it for arranging dates. ``And if I freak out, they don't have to see it.''
Overall, nearly half of teens age 13 to 18 said they use instant messaging, Internet-borne strings of real-time chatter often accompanied by enough frenzied multi-tasking to short-circuit the typical adult brain.
Only about one in five adults said they use IMs -- though usually with a good deal less technological aplomb or hormone-driven social drama.
Among teenagers, about half of girls and more than a third of boys said they have used instant messages for things they would not say in person.
Teens do not have sole rights to using instant messages for their personal lives. About eight in 10 adults who IM use it to send personal messages from work. About half of adult IMers say they log on to IM on at least daily -- slightly below the percentage of teens who do so that often.
Teens are far more likely to use many of the bells and whistles that have pushed IM programs well beyond the simple text message. They are at least twice as likely as adults to send IMs to a friend's phone, and to use them to share music or video files or to listen to music.
They are more likely than adults to use IM to chat with more than one person at a time, and to use the technology to send photos or document files.
And while three-fourths of adults say they send more e-mails than instant messages, nearly the same amount of teens say they send more IMs.
Teens also dominate when it comes to high usage. One in 10 say they spend three hours or more a day instant messaging, about double the adult rate. Nearly a fifth, or 17 percent, send more than 100 IMs daily, about triple the number for adults.
Adults outdo teens in only one activity while instant messaging -- online shopping.
The poll also found less than a fifth of people use IM's abilities to have audio chats or view streaming video of the person they are messaging.
Over half say they have received unsolicited IMs from somebody they don't know.
AOL, Yahoo and Microsoft have the most popular instant messaging programs, which collectively handle several billion IMs daily.
People reported IMing slightly less than they did in a similar Associated Press-AOL survey last year. Industry analysts said they believe IM usage is growing, and said people could be confused about whether to include IMs sent from cellphones and Web sites.
The online survey of 410 teens and 836 adults was conducted from Oct. 25 to Nov. 5 by Knowledge Networks.
The margin of sampling error was plus or minus 6 percentage points for teens and 4.3 points for adults.