In this era of the Internet and digital communication (c. 1990) there has been a continuing trend of instant communication technologies referred to as Instant Messaging (IM), which "is a form of real-time communication between two or more people based on typed text... conveyed via computers connected over a network such as the Internet" (Wikipedia) and Text Messaging, which is the “sending of 'short' (160 characters or fewer, including spaces) text messages from mobile phones using the Short Message Service (SMS)" (Wikipedia). These forms of instant communication have become a part of the average person’s daily life as the technology has become more efficient. American youths have been referred to as "... generally intense users of instant messaging technology..." (Lenhart, A., Rainie, L., & Lewis, O., 2001), but how does this mode of communication affect a youth's command of the English language, whether it be written or spoken? In addition, how does it affect a youth's ability to create and build healthy relationships? Research has been done to determine "how student's use of text messaging technology, specifically IM, affects their writing skills" (O'Connor, 2005), and this research has revealed mixed views on the topic. The technology's affect on youth's socialization has become a constant topic of debate.
A 2001 Pew report assessed that "about 17 million youth ages 12 through 17 use the internet" (Lenhart, et al., 2001), which represents "73% of those in this age bracket" (2001). Of those online teens, 74% were found to be using instant messaging; also, 69% of teen instant message users were found to use IM at least several times a week (2001). It has been claimed "instant messaging stands to actually strengthen many existing relationships one has by reducing the problems caused by distance, time and money" (Payne, 2007), but the Internet, and its place in the home, also creates tension between parents and children (Lenhart, et al., 2001). This tension is focused on a report that "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 someone they have not met before" (Lenhart, et al., 2001).
These dangers aside, this trend in communication has both benefits and detractions to the mental growth of youths. It has been said that "while [IM/text] allows us to quickly and easily communicate with those that we want to communicate with, it also tends to take the personal level of communication out of the situation a bit" (Payne, 2007). This lack of personal, face-to-face, interaction could ultimately hinder American youth's growth and development of natural socialization skills that past generations acquired simply through their day-to-day communications. Payne went on to say, "Even if one was to consider the video and voice features available, this kind of communication is still void of face-to-face contact that is key to our social interactions overall" (2007).
A report from New Horizons for Learning stated that "while there is supporting evidence to suggest that these technologies have a large influence on the social development of adolescents, and even more pertinent issue for classroom teachers is what effect these technologies have on the academic development of young people" (O'Connor, 2005). On the topic of instant messaging affect on student's academics two points-of-view have been determined; they are "those who see 'Internet English' as a breakdown of the English language" and "those who regard this same 'Internet English' not only as an example of how language is constantly developing and changing, but also as a type of literacy in and of itself, which can be capitalized on to engage students in more traditional learning" (2005).
Several articles indicate that students who use messaging on a frequent basis often use bad grammar, poor punctuation, and improper abbreviations in academic writing (2005). One such report claims that "teachers say that papers are being written with shortened words, improper capitalization and punctuation, and characters like &, $ and @" (Lee, 2002). It was also said, "some teachers see the creeping abbreviations as part of a continuing assault of technology on formal written English" (2002). Cindy Glover, a teacher of undergraduate freshman composition in 2002 claims to have "spent a lot of time unteaching Internet-speak.’ My students were trying to communicate academic, scholarly thoughts, but some of them didn't seem to know it's 'y-o-u' not 'u'" (Friess, 2003). In the same report, Friess describes a 15 year-old's summer job application that read, "i want 2 b a counselor because i love 2 work with kids" (2003). Another 2003 report found that "students have trouble seeing the distinction between formal and informal writing, and consequently use informal IM abbreviations and lingo in more formal writing situations" (Brown-Owens, Eason, & Lader, 2003, p.6). Robyn Jackson, a high-school English teacher explained, "we expect kids to get it instinctively, and they don't. It's something that has to be explicitly conveyed to children" (Helderman, 2003). Robert Schrag, a communications professor, echoed this same view when he stated, "We have always implicitly taught our children different language structures and how they function in different arenas... We use (a different) language structure watching a basketball game than in our place of worship. Most children will understand the difference" (Friess, 2003). Montana Hodgen, a 16 year-old high school student "was so accustomed to instant messaging abbreviations that she often read right past them. She said that she 'was so used to reading what my friends wrote to me on Instant message that I didn't even realize that there was something wrong.' She said her ability to separate formal and informal English declined the more she used instant messages" (Lee, 2002). Leila Christenberry, former president of the National Council of Teachers of English and a university English professor, offers the analogy, "It's not that there's never a place for this sort of thing, but it's the difference between how you would dress to go out on a Saturday night versus how you would dress when you do yard work" (Friess, 2003).
Though many educators feel this form of communication is for the worse, some feel that it may aim to improve student’s grasp of the written and spoken English language. Professor Barbars Bell believes that "anytime [students] are reading or writing, it's going to help" (Associated Press, 2003, p.1). There is also a "strong agreement among parents and teens that use of the internet helps youths at school" (Lenhart, et al., 2001). In a Washington Post article, Helderman took the stance that "Instant messaging and email are creating a new generation of teenage writers, accustomed to translating their every thought and feeling into words. They write more than any generation has since the days when telephone calls were rare and the mailman rounded more than once a day" (Helderman, 2003). In her research, Gloria Jacobs has found that not only are students writing more than they have in years, but they are also revising and editing as well (O'Connor, 2005). “Jacobs said that too many adults dismiss online writing because they assume kids jot off anything that pops into their heads. While that is sometimes true, she said, she also saw teenagers read over messages before sending them, editing to clear up mistakes or imprecision... Liz [Charlton, a 13 year-old seventh grader] and her classmates said they will sometimes sit in front of a computer screen for up to 10 minutes, planning a sensitive message- wording and rewording" (Helderman, 2003). This process is also being shuffled off by technology, with AOL's recent advent of an email spell-check program.
It is a clear conclusion that IM is becoming an important literacy in kids' lives, and consequently one that needs to be recognized by teachers (O'Connor, 2005). A University of South Carolina- Aiken report declared that "the dilemma, then, is how to help educators adopt literacy education to the reality that instant messaging is the dominant mode of written communication in the lives of many American teenagers" (Brown-Owens, et al., 2003, p. 8). Erika Karres, a teacher educator, uses Internet language as an example of today's speech as she "shows students how English has evolved since Shakespeare's time" (Lee, 2002). In addition, Trisha Rogarty, a sixth-grade teacher, explains, "when [her students] are writing first drafts, I don't care how they spell anything, as long as they are writing... If this lingo gets their thoughts and ideas onto paper quicker, the more power to them" (2002). However, the same teacher indicates, "during editing and revising, she expects her students to switch to Standard English" (2002). Ultimately, "students need to understand the importance of using the appropriate language in the appropriate setting, and that who one is writing for affects the way in which one writes" (O'Connor, 2005). This should be the main focus of today's educators, because this trend shows no sign of ending any time soon.
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