Home > Publications > Non-Technical > The Dangers of Instant Messaging

The Dangers of Instant Messaging

Instant Messaging (IM) is gaining popularity with teenagers and adults as a way to communicate in real time using a computer or cell phone. It combines the instantaneous response of a telephone call with the discretion of the Internet. Instant messaging presents a security risk by constantly being connected to the Internet; it eliminates face-to-face communication, and has the ability to send attachments that contain spam, viruses, worms, or other malicious programs that can harm a computer or cell phone.

Parents, teenagers and young adults should take precautionary measures with instant messaging because it is not a monitored communication (like a chat room/forum).  As a result, anything can be sent and posted on the internet.  Some precautionary measures to discuss with friends and family members are: IM safety rules (who to communicate with), review messages and user profiles, limit the number of texts sent and received, and don’t send personal information (name, address, age) to anyone, etc.  Lastly, if the text message received contains harmful, hateful, explicit, misleading URL’s, or pornographic pictures, it should be reported to the ISP/authorities.

Using an instant messaging program requires the user to download and install software on a computer or cell phone. During the installation process software users must enroll for a user ID and create a password.  Once this is completed the user may use the instant messaging program. When enrolling for a user ID enter as little information as possible and create an uncommon user ID to prevent other people from gaining access to your credentials. Users should never store their instant messaging password as a file in their computer or cell phone.  Once the user is logged into the program they may communicate with other people that are logged on.

Security risks associated with Instant Messaging:

Users speaking to strangers:  Instant Messaging allows users to build friend lists and speak with people from around the world which may be convenient, but do you know who is communicating with you?  Instant Messaging is an easy way to target people because there is no face-to-face communication; users are communicating blindly with people they do not know.

To prevent this from occurring, ensure that the user knows who the other person is, what their screen name is, and what their normal IM messaging style is. For example, if a recipient says something that is not what would be considered “normal” for that user. The sender should determine if that person is who they say they are by asking a series of questions only the real person would know.

Eavesdropping - IM conversations are never private.  Even though they seem to be, when a user sends an instant message, that message is sent and all information is housed and recorded on a central server, before the other person receives it. Additionally, anything that is sent as part of the message (text, video, picture, etc); can be forwarded to others without your knowledge.  Preventing eavesdropping is easy; don’t include private information (home address, bank account #’s, etc.) in any instant message, be wary of shoulder surfers, and  lock the computer/cell phone when not in use.

Worms and Viruses - Don’t Open links sent from unknown persons.  They could contain worms or viruses. Be cautious when opening links from know persons, because even those messages could contain worms or viruses. Some preventative measures to avert worms and viruses from infecting the computer or cell phone are: configuring for automatic updates, installing anti-virus software, and turning on the system firewall.

Spam - Spam is considered junk mail for computers and cell phones and can be sent as an e-mail or IM attachment (link, picture, etc.). Spam filters allow people to block any type of spam from anyone, including contacts not on your friends list. Check the computer or cell phone user guides for configuring spam filters.

Giving Out Personal Information - Do Not Send Any Personal Information (phone #, name, address, etc.) by way of texts, graphics, or pictures. There are no take backs when an instant message is sent, plus they can be forwarded to anyone. Before sending the instant message think about this: “Is this something that I want the entire world to see?”

Instant Messaging Tips for Parents

• Set time and location limits when children are allowed to use instant messaging.
• Review your children’s instant message profile and message logs on a regular
• Discuss the dangers and preventative tips for instant messaging with your
• Know your child’s instant message screen name and password.
• Change the password regularly to prevent the instant messaging account from
   being hacked into.
• Get to know your child’s online friends so you know who they are speaking with.
• If you suspect an online predator contacts your child through an instant message,
  contact the police IMMEDIATELY, and The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

What to Report:

 • Strangers who ask for personal information, photos or videos of you, your family
   or your friends via instant message or e-mail.
• Unsolicited obscene material from people or companies you don't know.
• Misleading URLs on the Internet which point you to websites that
   contain obscene or hateful information.
• Anyone who sends you photos or videos that contain obscene content of
   individuals 18 and younger.
• Online enticement for sexual activities offline.

There are many different dangers associated with Instant Messaging. They range from minor infractions to severe criminal activity. Therefore, any hateful, explicit, harassing, pornographic, or unauthorized text messages should be reported to an adult. Severe cases should be reported to the local police department and The Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Instant Messaging can be very helpful and practical if it is used appropriately. Children can inform you when they get home from school without disturbing your work day. They can also clarify homework assignments with their classmates by using instant messaging. However, if children are unaware of the dangers instant messaging poses, they may not fully understand the consequences when a serious incident occurs. Parents need to reinforce the dangers of instant messaging with their children on a regular basis because communicating through instant messaging is becoming increasingly dangerous.