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An extremely important aspect to take into account in terms of the impact of IM on interpersonal relationships is the age-group of the user. As mentioned briefly above, the younger generation is more at home with this technology and therefore their interpersonal relationships are less adversely affected than older users, who have become used to a more offline mode of communication. In other words, the younger users will tend to have already adapted their relationships to the prevalent mode of communication and to the conventions of instant messaging. Added to this are other variables, such as cultural and social norms that promote or support these new mean of communion. Smith (2006) summarizes this point concisely: "...theory suggests that the apparent change of one's communication skills in any context depends on the society that the individual was raised or educated in through his or her child and young adult years..." (Smith D. 2006)
Another issue that places IM in a negative light is that in offline conversations the participants in the conversation usually see one another and take into account non-verbal signs; which are of particular importance for communication and relationships. Instant messaging on the other hand only offers a set of limited 'emoticons' or basic visual symbol that can be attached to the text to deal with these subtle aspects of communication. While IM can be a very effective of communication and conversation it is not the best mode of communication for deeper and more intense interrelationships. "....the problem lies in the fact that deep personal conversations are not necessarily well communicated online as they are offline in face-to-face chats" (Smith D. 2006).
Another common criticism of IM is that too much time is spent on this medium to the detriment of work and more meaningful relationships. In essence, the more time spent online the less time is spent actually interacting with people in the physical world - a fact which many psychologists are concerned about. Related to this is the fact that instant messaging conversations may lack a strong sense of security or rather that IM conversation may lead to a false sense of security, which is largely a result of not physically seeing and 'judging' the other person. This also leads to the important question of the way that this form of interaction can affect the individual's sense of reality. "... IM conversations ultimately lead to a false security about what is real and what is not" (Lee and Perry, 2004, p. 6). In essence the concern that is expressed in this regard is that interaction in terms of the possibilities and limitations of IM may lead to a divorce or a distance form actual physical reality; which may in turn have negative outcomes for the individual. Instant messaging has also been criticized in terms of certain practical aspects of daily life. For example, "... If one becomes so shrouded in the program itself, he or she may abstain from any opportunity to leave the room, foregoing eating, attending class, or failing to exercise properly in the process" (Smith D. 2006).
Another theoretical issue which should be noted is the phenomenon of Idealized Perception in IM. This refers to the fact that in IM conversations the interaction is based on limited information. Therefore one of the characteristics of interaction in the IM environment is that that the one participant may not realize the negative attributes of the other. In other terms this means that;
partners may engage in over-attributing impressions. These impressions are based on meager information, such as, misspelling or excessive punctuation. These impressions are not uniformly positive, nor negative. The valence of the evaluation is based on perceived similarities, in the absence of physical exposure to one another. (McQuillen J. 2003)
This also refers to the previous view of IM in that certain aspect can be concealed in IM which would otherwise be more evident in conventional interactive situations. Hence the reports of many people, and children, in IM relationships being conned or misled by individuals who they accept and trust at face value. "...because of the lack of nonverbal information. The receiver has no (or very limited) information available to test, validate, discredit, or refine the information presented by the sender" (McQuillen J. 2003).
On the other had the contemporary literature abounds with studies, report and commentaries which assert the positive aspects of instant messaging. An aspect that is seen to be generally positive is the fact that it enhances communication. Some theorists state that IM has become the primary means of communication among family and friends and business in society. (Smith D. 2006) Furthermore, there are studies which show that instant messaging is a mode of communication that can enhance social learning and lead to the acquisition of knowledge that is part and parcel of socializing..." (Smith D. 2006)
Another aspect that in fact facilitates better social interaction in many cases is that an IM conversation is not dependent on real-time and "... asynchronous exchanges allow for a cognitive/interactive "time out" that is not typical of Face-to-face interactions" (McQuillen J. 2003). In contrast to face-to-face interaction where there can be little time-lag between responses, an IM conversation can be delayed, which results in a reduction of stress associated with the need for an immediate response. Pundits also point out that IM allows for more freedom in interaction to "...use cognitive resources as deemed necessary" (McQuillen J. 2003).
An important aspect of IM and communications is the way that it is able to evoke social presence. Social presence is defined by Biocca et al. (2003) as a "...sense of being with another in a mediated environment" (p. 14). The factor of social presence is used as an important variable in studies of new media like instant messaging. For example, in a study measuring the experience of "being with others" or social presence in text-based virtual environments such as IM, it was found that "...69% reported that they felt a sense of presence with others when they use this technology" (Hwang and Lombard, 2006).
In general research reveals that there is a mixture of positive and negative aspects to the way in which IM affects communication and impersonal relationships. On the one hand it was found that, "Although IM software is becoming more complex and offering more features, it primarily remains a text-based medium. The absence of non-verbal cues such as body language and facial expression make it easy for misunderstandings to occur in IM conversations" (Guidry K.R.). Other findings also suggest that the relationships that are entered into via IM are not as deep or substantial as offline relationships.
On the other hand there is a strong case made for the importance of IM as a communications medium and many experts suggest that in fact there is little real difference between online and offline relationships. This view suggests that while relationships are formed differently in online and IM environments, these relationships are largely similar in most respects to ordinary offline relationships. (Tidwell, and Walther, 2002) This view sees little real or fundamental difference in the way that interpersonal interaction takes place in IM.
Coupled with the above view are the numerous positive aspects of instant messaging. These include the ease of use and communication and the fact that the IM user is prone to make more connections and interact with more people due to the interactive nature of the environment, than would be the case in an ordinary offline situation.
While there are differing points-of-view about IM, these are still generalizations that need to be further researched and investigated to order to reach a more coherent and definitive assessment of IM and its effect on interpersonal communications. As one study puts it; "Researchers must work together to conduct a study that focuses on the offline communication habits of this generation and then more than speculate how this affects online communication" (Smith D. 2006). As mentioned in the introduction, there is a need for more in-depth research in this subject. At present there is a tendency to see IM as having a generally negative impact on interpersonal relationship, while being positive in terms of the advancement of communications. However, this view may change with more extensive e research on the issue.
Biocca, F., Harms, C., Burgoon, J. (2003). Toward a MoreRobust Theory and Measure of Social Presence: Review and Suggested Criteria. Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments, 12(5), 456-480.
Bonka S. Quinn a., Kraut R., Kiesler S. And Shklovski I. Teenage
Communication in the Instant Messaging Era. Retrieved August 16, 2007, at http://www-2.cs.cmu.edu/~kraut/RKraut.site.files/articles/Boneva04-TeenCommunicationInIMEra.pdf
Grinter, R., & Palen, L. (2002). Instant Messaging in teen life. Proceedings of the 2002 ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work. Retrieved August 12, 2007, at http://portal.acm.org/ft_gateway.cfm?id=587082&type=pdf&coll=Portal&dl=ACM&CFID=29733676&CFTOKEN=51420973.
Guidry K.R. Instant Messaging: Its Impact on and Recommendations for Student
Affairs. Retrieved August 16, 2007, at http://www.studentaffairs.com/ejournal/Fall_2004/InstantMessaging.html
Hwang H.S. And Lombard M.(2006) Understanding Instant Messaging:
Gratifications and Social Presence. Retrieved August 15,…[continue]
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