More than four in 10, or 43 percent, of teens who instant message use it for things they wouldn't say in person, according to an Associated Press-AOL poll released Thursday. Twenty-two percent use IMs to ask people out on dates or accept them, and 13 percent use them to break up.
"If they freak out or something, you don't see it," said Cassy Hobert, 17, a high school senior from Frenchburg, Ky., and avid IMer who has used it for arranging dates. "And if I freak out, they don't have to see it."
Overall, nearly half of teens age 13 to 18 said they use instant messaging, those staccato, Internet-borne strings of real-time chatter often coupled with enough frenzied multitasking to fry the typical adult brain. Only about one in five adults said they use IMs - though usually with less technological aplomb or hormone-driven social drama.
Danny Hitt, 34, a Riverside, Calif., real estate agent, says he has chatted with four or five IM buddies at once - a number some teens would consider embarrassingly low. He prefers the telephone for important communications.
"To me a significant conversation takes a phone call," Hitt said. "The inflection in the voice, you lose that" with instant messages.
Instant messaging's lack of physical proximity is exactly the point for those determined to avoid cringe-inducing episodes.
Take Lewis Grove, 19, a college sophomore from Heath, Ohio, who said he has used instant messages for both ends of the dating cycle.
"Fear of rejection - if you're face to face, you can't close out the window and disappear if you've been rejected" like you could if you were instant messaging, he said.
Grove said the IM breakup has its advantages, too.
"I've had some crazy ex-girlfriends. Saying that in person would probably not be the best idea for my physical safety," he said.
Among teenagers, about half of girls and more than a third of boys said they have used instant messages for things they wouldn't say in person.
Teens do not have sole rights to using instant messages for their personal lives. About eight in 10 adults who IM use it to send personal messages from work. About half of adult IMers say they log to IM on at least daily - slightly below the percentage of teens who do so that often.
Yet comparing the use and technical sophistication of instant messaging by teens and adults, while not quite like comparing Einstein to a walnut, is pretty one-sided.
Teens are far more likely to use many of the bells and whistles that have pushed IM programs well beyond the simple text message. They are at least twice as likely as adults to send IMs to a friend's phone, and to use them to share music or video files or to listen to music.
They are more likely than adults to use IM to chat with more than one person at a time, and to send photos or document files. And while three-fourths of adults say they send more e-mails than instant messages, nearly that many teens say they send more IMs.
Teens also dominate when it comes to high usage. One in 10 say they spend three hours or more a day instant messaging, about double the adult rate. Nearly a fifth, or 17 percent, send more than 100 IMs daily, about triple the number for adults.
"I could be practicing my viola or riding my bike," said Traci Laichter, 14, of Henderson, Nev., reciting her parents' efforts to wean her from her four hours daily of IMing. "I guess it makes sense, but oh well, I'd rather talk to my friends."
Nearly six in 10 teens say they research homework while IMing - a percentage many parents might find suspiciously low. Large numbers of people check e-mail and search the Internet while instant messaging, while a third to half of teens say while IMing they also upload photographs, download music or videos, listen to online radio or update their blogs or social networking profiles.
Adults outdo teens in only one activity while instant messaging - online shopping.
The poll also found less than a fifth of people use IM's abilities to have audio chats or view streaming video of the person they are messaging. Over half say they have received unsolicited IMs from somebody they don't know.
AOL, Yahoo Inc. and Microsoft Corp. have the most popular instant messaging programs, which collectively handle several billion IMs daily.
People reported IMing slightly less than they did in a similar AP-AOL survey last year. Industry analysts said they believe IM usage is growing, and said people could be confused about whether to include IMs sent from cell phones and web sites.
The online survey of 410 teens and 836 adults was conducted from Oct. 25-Nov. 5 by Knowledge Networks. The margin of sampling error was plus or minus 6 percentage points for teens and 4.3 points for adults.
By Alan Fram and Trevor Tompson