For the generation that was born when the Internet was just getting off the launch pad, the information superhighway is a mode of communication that replaces the telephone nightly.
The online medium known as instant messaging draws flocks of youth to spend their evenings conversing in text. The technology is used by people of all ages, but it's particularly pervasive at Craig Middle School.
"It's quite the rage," said Tammy Rogers, the mother of a 14-year-old CMS student. "Everybody does it. Sometimes I'm amazed at how many kids are trying to talk at the same time."
Tammy's daughter, Cassie, said she gets online to send instant messages to her friends at least five times a week. It's usually in the evening hours on school nights.
Cassie Rogers has about 100 people on her contact list. She said she usually only talks to about five people at once, otherwise it just gets too confusing to follow the conversation. The MSN messenger program that most of the CMS students use supports the ability to hold 12 simultaneous conversations inside one window.
Shelby Stillion, a 14-year-old who attends CMS, said nearly every one of her friends uses instant messaging.
"It's good for practicing your typing," Stillion said. "We just talk about life, what happened at school today -- anything cool that happened."
Stillion said she gets bored talking on the telephone. When she's online, the typing keeps her occupied, and the World Wide Web is just a click away.
"It gives you something to do because you can look up stuff," Stillion said.
Stillion searches for photos or images that she sends to her friends via the MSN instant messenger. She sends pictures of snowboarding, snowmobiling and BMX racing. She also uses the Internet for help on her homework.
The environment is pretty casual, Stillion said. Students don't have any set time, and they come and go as they please.
But instant messaging is also a way to settle scores, resolve issues or pick fights.
"Sometimes if you want to confront someone, it's easier over the Internet," Cassie Rogers said.
That's one of the reasons Tammy Rogers has a problem with instant messaging.
"I don't like it much," Tammy Rogers said. "As a parent, I've seen a lot that's being said that they wouldn't have the guts to say face to face. I watch it very closely here."
The computer at the Rogers' house is in the open, where anyone can walk by and read what's on the screen. And when Tammy Rogers sees something inappropriate posted by another user, her daughter either has to block messages from that person or get off the Internet.
Seventh-grader Hannah Terrill said she's used instant messaging to solve problems with friends.
"It was hard to talk face-to-face. I talked to them over the Internet and we got it all settled," Terrill said.
Some of the language the students use is close to indecipherable to those not in the know. Punctuation is almost never used, and everything is lowercase.
"I never write in caps unless I'm yelling at a person," Stillion said.
Stillion and her friends also use a variety of shortcuts that replace longer phrases.
- brb means "be right back"
- jk means "just kidding"
- lol means "laughing out loud"
- cyal8r means "see you later"
"We shorten words," Cassie Rogers said. "ppl is people and sry is sorry."
Instant messaging has limitations, Stillion said, because tones of voice and sarcasm are hard to communicate.
The youths rely on character combinations to communicate feelings. MSN Messenger contains numerous "emoticons," which translate characters into animated faces. A smiley face, for instance, can be represented by a colon and a close parenthesis -- :).
One emoticon has an eyebrow lifted. Cassie Rogers uses it to represent sarcasm.
"They have their own language," said Natalie Simpson, the mother of a 14-year-old who uses instant messaging. "The friends all understand it. As a parent, I look at it and I'm like, 'What are they saying?'"
Simpson's older daughter is 18, and she never got into instant messaging, Simpson said. The older daughter uses the telephone, or she goes out with friends. Much of the time, the younger one can be found sitting in front of the computer.
"I don't know if that's good or bad," Simpson said. "At least I know where she is."
Jeremy Browning can be reached at 824-7031 or firstname.lastname@example.org