Also known as IM, instant messaging consists of sending real-time messages to another Internet user, much like text messaging on a cell phone; most popular among younger generations, IM is also commonly used in the workforce as a quick way for employees to communicate with each other. IM is comparable to chatting in a private chat room, but instead of anyone being able to join the conversation, IM includes only people whom the user has invited. Users can create a list to keep track of welcome guests, and IM sends an alert that pops up on the computer screen when a new message is received. To use instant messaging, it is necessary to open an account with an IM program, most of which are free; many programs require users to create a screen name so that the user can be identified by others. There are some risks affiliated with IM such as a computer catching a virus, personal information being stolen, or sex predators seeking victims; however, these risks can be reduced or avoided entirely when the proper precautions are followed.
How to IM
In order to send and receive instant messages, a user must sign-up for an IM account. There are several web-based programs online that offer free IM accounts. When choosing a program, keep in mind that some are compatible with each other, while others are not; this is important as users will want to choose programs that are compatible with those whom they will be communicating. Most, if not all, programs require users to create a user name that will be an identification tag for sending and receiving messages, and additional personal information can be added if the user so wishes. Once the account is established, users should tell friends, family, and coworkers their new screen name so that the IM can begin.
Benefits of IM
Instant messaging is more private than a typical chat room, because the user must invite others to join, as opposed to chat rooms where anyone is welcome to join the conversation. IM is a much faster and simpler way to communicate than using email because message is sent immediately and the receive does not have to log in to read it. Since instant messaging allows users to communicate in real-time, users can respond quickly to questions or comments. Instant messaging is a great way to stay in touch with family members and friends while saving money on long distance phone bills.
Risks of IM
As with any online activity, caution should be exercised with messaging. It is not a good idea to add people to the invite list unless the user knows something about them. Children should be supervised carefully when instant messaging and should never add someone to their list or agree to be added to anyone else's list without approval from their legal guardian. Predators have been known to use instant messaging as well as chat rooms to seek out victims, so while IM may seem safer, it is not without risks.
It is also possible to obtain viruses, worms, and Trojan horses through messaging, so care should be taken when accepting any files. Also, don't type anything that shouldn't be shared with others, since instant messages can be captured and the text can be saved and passed on. Even though messaging sessions seem private, they are really not any more secure than the average email; identity thefts can still get a hold of personal information through instant messages. Instant messaging can be a convenient way to communicate, but like anything else, it should be used with care.