E-mail, IM & Chat Rooms

A study from the Pew Internet & American Life Project shows that teens (ages 12-17) use text messaging to communicate with their friends more than e-mail or instant messaging (IM). However, these online communication services, along with chat rooms, continue to be an important part of children’s online interactions. E-mail accounts, for example, are often necessary to join social networking sites, online games, and virtual worlds. Social networking sites, like Facebook, often have IM and e-mail components.

E-mail, IM, and chat room programs let children communicate with friends and family members. They can also allow children to connect with people that they have never met in person, making them vulnerable to online predators, cyberbullies, and scam artists. Knowing a little about each of these communication services, and the associated risks, can help parents, guardians, and other trusted adults keep children safer while online.


Through e-mail, users can easily send and receive messages. These messages may also have text, audio, and picture files attached. Signing up for an e-mail account is simple, as most services offer them for free and do not check the identities of users. This allows cyberbullies or scam artists to anonymously send harassing messages or spam. Sometimes these messages contain viruses, scams, or other inappropriate content, so trusted adults should warn children to be wary of e-mails from unknown people.

Instant Messaging

Instant messaging programs allow users to exchange real-time messages with people from a list of contacts, also known as a “buddy” list. Children may not know the true identities of their buddies, as IM accounts can be acquired anonymously. Trusted adults should review children’s buddy lists for unknown contacts, and talk to them about the identities of the people on the lists. Trusted adults should also learn some of the chat acronyms, such as POS (parent over shoulder) and A/S/L (age/sex/location), which children use to communicate over IM. This will help you be aware of anyone saying anything inappropriate to your child.

Chat Rooms

Chat rooms are online hang-out spots where anyone can talk about anything—current events, books, and other common interests. Users often do not know each other in real life, so it is important that trusted adults keep a close eye on the content of any conversations.

Chat rooms offer features which allow users to chat through private, one-on-one messages. Predators may use this to entice children into conversations about sex and offline meetings. Parents and guardians should be aware of secretive behavior, such as a child minimizing the screen when an adult enters the room.


Help children stay safer online

Keep your children safer online by being familiar with the technology and applications that they use to talk with one another.

  • Know who your child is communicating with online.
  • Open a family e-mail account to share with younger children.
  • Work with your child to brainstorm screennames and e-mail addresses that do not contain information about gender, identity, or location, and that avoid being suggestive.
  • Teach your child never to open e-mails from unknown senders and to use settings on IM programs to block messages from people they do not know.
  • Be aware of other ways your child may be going online—with cell phones, laptops, or from friends’ homes or the library.
  • Tell your child not to share passwords with anyone but you to help avoid identity theft and cyberbullying.
  • Familiarize yourself with popular acronyms at sites like and

Discussion Starters

Start a discussion with your child
  • Do you use IM or chat rooms to talk to your friends and others?
  • How many people do you have on your buddy/contact list(s) and who are they?
  • Have you ever chatted with someone you did not know in real life? What kinds of things did you talk about?
  • Does the social networking site you use have e-mail, IM, or chat rooms?
  • Do you know how to block others in chat rooms and IM? Can you show me how to do this?