Teens also love to play practical jokes with instant messaging. Almost two in five (39%) of teens have ever played a trick on someone online by pretending to be someone else over IM. Sometimes teens have hijacked an instant messaging program that someone else failed to log out of on a shared computer. Other times they may have discovered or were told someone else’s password, allowing them to login under their screen name. One member of a high school focus group explained how some pranksters get access to the passwords of others:
“Sometimes if you go to someone else’s house, it might save automatically [when you use IM on their computer]. Your password might save onto their computer. You can uncheck the box [on the IM program] and it won’t save, but most people just don’t bother with that.”
And in some cases, teens make up new screen names and then IM their peers pretending to be someone else. This joking behavior has increased since we first asked, up from 26% in late 2000, an 88% increase over four years in the proportion of IM users who are IM mischief-makers.
One young woman caught a prankster in the act:
“I was on IM under a different screen name, and then I saw myself sign on, and I was like, hmmmm….I was just really confused. I started talking to them, and I’m like ‘Who is this?’ I’m like ‘Why are you on my screen name?’ But I just found out it was my neighbor, so I didn’t really care. I got a new screen name. So they can’t—and I know they wouldn’t—do anything bad with it. I didn’t really worry about it.”—High School female
As mentioned above, teens have also noticed the dis-inhibiting effects of computer-mediated communication. Close to a third of teens (31%) report having written something over instant messaging that they wouldn’t say to someone’s face. This is a slight decline from the proportion of IM users who reported this when we first asked the question in 2000. At that time 37% of IMing teens reported writing things online they would not say to someone’s face. Of course, the things that are said over IM that wouldn’t be said face-to-face could be of both a positive and negative nature. Sometimes these statements or comments can be hurtful, but other times they can be positive. IM often allows teens and adults to say things that might otherwise cause embarrassment, or to have a discussion that clears the air after a conflict, conversations that might be harder to have in a face-to-face manner.