June 20, 2001

The Rise of the Instant-Message Generation

17 million American teens are online and most say the Internet helps their friendships

A new report also reveals that parents think the Internet is a good thing for
their teenagers even though the online world poses some problems

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Three-quarters of American middle school and high school students use the Internet and most of them have enthusiastically embraced instant messaging tools to enrich their friendships and expand their social worlds. At the same time, teenagers report that their eagerness to use the Internet has taken time away from their families.

Most parents believe mastery of the Internet is important for their children”s success and 55% say that the Internet has been a good thing for their children, especially when it comes to schoolwork. A scant 6% say it is a bad thing.

Still, teenagers” use of the Internet has become a source of tension at times in many homes. Some 40% of parents say they have argued with their children about their use of the Internet and most say they have tried to lay down rules about their children”s use of the Net.

These are among the findings in a new report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project called “Teenage Life Online: The rise of the instant-message generation and the Internet”s impact on friendships and family relationships.”

The results are based on a phone survey of 754 teenagers and 754 of their parents by Princeton Survey Research Associates and a week-long online discussion group conducted in association with the research firm Greenfield Online.

“The Internet is the telephone, television, game console, and radio wrapped up in one for most teenagers and that means it has become a major ”player” in many American families,” says Lee Rainie, Director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project. “Teens use online tools to chat with their friends, kill boredom, see the wider world, and follow the latest trends. Many enjoy doing all those things at the same time during their online sessions. Multitasking is their way of life.”

Here are some of the major findings in the report:

  • 17 million youths between ages 12 and 17 use the Internet. That is 73% of those in that age bracket.
  • 48% of these teens say their use of the Internet improves their relationships with their friends; 32% say it helps them make new friends.
  • 64% of online teens say they think use of the Internet takes away from the time young people spend with their families.
  • 13 million of these teenagers, 74% of those with Internet access, have used instant messaging. While most instant messages are innocuous chit-chat, many are socially potent. More than a third of teens use IM to say things they don”t want to say in face-to-face conversations with their peers. Almost a fifth (17%) have used IM to ask someone out and more than a tenth (13%) have used IM to break up with someone.
  • One of the new symbols of friendship in the teen world is sharing online passwords. Some 22% of teens who use email, instant messaging or chat rooms have done that as a sign of trust.

    Many online teens use different screen names and email accounts to manage information that comes in to them and their identity with others in the online world. They also pretend to be different people and have had experience with others giving them false information.

    “Parents are often worried about what their children are doing online, but the teenagers themselves aren”t that concerned,” says Amanda Lenhart, principal author of the report. “They have mastered the technology, are very clever in the way they manage their online interactions, and are confident they can handle what the Net throws at them.”

    The report shows that parents and their children often do not agree about how their families address issues related to the Internet.

    Other findings of note:

  • Some 57% of parents worry that strangers will contact their children online. These worries are well grounded. Close to 60% of teens have received an instant message or an email from a stranger and 50% report emailing or instant messaging with someone they have not met before. Despite this, teens themselves are not particularly worried about strangers online, with 52% saying they do not worry at all about being contacted.
  • 15% of online teens and 25% of older boys online have lied about their age to access a Web site. This is one indication of how many teens have accessed online pornography.
  • 26% say the Internet helps them get information about things that are hard to talk to other people about.
  • 87% of parents believe the Internet helps their children in school; 78% of online teens agree.

    The Pew Internet & American Life Project is an independent, nonpartisan research organization fully funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts to examine the social impact of the Internet.