Instant Message: Instant Disaster

If you are reading this, you most likely work in some area of advertising, marketing or marketing communications and are involved in online activities. Well you may also be a parent, guardian, or around kids. Sit down for this one.

Something happened to me last week that's still shaken me up. Without getting too autobiographical here, I have a 13-year old sister. I've had her on the computer since she was 2 years old. She's had an AOL account since she was 5.

The social thing to do when you are a 13-year old is to go over your friend's houses and instant message (IM) other friends. What most of these kids don't realize is that when they log onto their account (be it AOL or AIM) a prompt for auto password flashes on. This is one of my least favorite functions. If you do not wish to automatically store your password you have to uncheck the box.

I'm sure you can see where this is going. Skipping ahead a few days, I'm at her iMac trying to fix a computer problem. She of course is logged onto AOL. As I'm trying to load and unload software windows kept popping up. She quickly replied to all when all of a sudden a nasty message came through from one of her best friends. "Why'd you call me a *&^%$?!" she said over and over again. This went on for several minutes until tears were streaming down her face.



Guess what, someone stole her password and was logged on. It was someone that knew her because they were singling out each one of her "buddies" on her buddy list. The person even went one step further and knew their names (versus their screen name handles). Here I sat, someone who works in the online field, helpless, watching the tears stream down her face.

We signed on as a different screen name to see if the person was on. Within moments they IMed us from her other screen name. They sent all sorts of rude messages to her. I didn't want them to upset her further but I needed to know who it was.

I quickly signed on to find a phone number for the fraud department. They quickly answered the phone and calmly spoke to me. Much to my disappointment, they couldn't do much of anything but look into it. They said the quickest way to put an end to it was to sign onto a different computer, go onto the AIM homepage, click the stolen password link, and change her password immediately. I did just that.

How could this happen you ask? Well let me clue you in to the clever (yet twisted) minds of the 13-year-old computer savvy. It seems all of these kids have both an AOL account and an AIM account. The typical scenario might be: One kid goes to the other kid's house after school, they log onto the kid's computer and AOL account, the second kid then launches AIM and signs on with their own screen name, both kids can now have open windows, their online buddies can see that they are both on, they then take turns IMing back and forth to their friends. Well in our scenario, somehow her password got saved on this kid's computer. You know the rest.

As I called some of the mother's to let them know these messages did not come from our house, I was further shocked. Many of them had no idea how to log on and what their kid's were doing. Many became upset and no longer wanted their kid's online. I stressed that this was the wrong approach. Kids need to be online. This generation has grown up digitally. However, rules and guidelines must be established.

Before your child goes online consider these safety factors:

  • Keep the computer in a public place such as the family room versus a bedroom or room on another floor.
  • Regulate the time your child goes online. Have s/he ask permission to go online
  • Require your child to give you their password. Go online and check it regularly.
  • Have a detailed discussion about security and false identity online. They are not too little to hear it. Make sure they know never to let anyone know who they are, where they live, how old they are, or any detail about them.
  • Watch your child's online profile. This is the place where kids tend to tell all: their sports team, school name, friend's names etc. Make sure there is nothing descriptive here either.
  • Realize no matter what precautions you take, your child is going to get spammed with nasty subject lines. Make sure they never open these emails or IMs.
  • Discuss computer viruses with your child.

    As I said earlier, the approach is not to ban kids from using computers and the Internet unless they have abused privileges. These kids are eating, sleeping, and breathing technology. When it comes to hardware, software, tools and the Internet, they have no fear. Maybe it's fair time they should.

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