Just 10 minutes after she arrives home from school and makes some microwave popcorn, 12-year-old Jennie Hartsell heads for the Internet.
Homework can wait, the honors student says. There's a more pressing task sending an instant message to her best friend, Katherine.
Even before she can start typing, the chime on her computer sounds and a name pops up on-screen. It's Katherine's sign-on, a combination of her nickname and her favorite clothing label. Jennie's face lights up.
"Sup?" it reads. (That's short for "What's up?")
Jennie types back quickly: "u!"
Katherine wants to finish the conversation the two had started in the hallway between third and last period. They haven't seen each other for two whole hours. Before Katherine has responded, Jennie hears the chime again. Her classmate Kelly is ringing in for details on a math assignment.
In Jennie's 15-minute session, 11 friends catch up and exchange gossip, homework, and nonsense.
Welcome to the world of IM, a preteen and teen-dominated culture that gives computer users instant gratification with real-time communication. Jennie's buddy list the names of people she messages is up to 58 friends, classmates and cousins.
This youthful generation is obsessed with IM. About 13 million of them, or 74 percent of all online teens, use IM to communicate in real time, compared with 44 percent of online adults, according to a study done late last year as part of the Pew Internet & American Life Project. The study interviewed more than 700 teens and their parents to look at how the Internet has been integrated into teens' lives.
Kids' interest in IM is easy to explain, say Internet and parenting experts.
"Branching out is part of the teen experience, and IM is adventure," says Doug Miles, spokesman for Imici, an instant-messaging service provider. "Even though a teen may be stuck in the same boring town, they can get out and see more of the world and meet people outside their physical location."
They also can communicate thoughts they might not feel comfortable expressing face to face, experiencing relative security in the process, Miles says.
It's the ideal, many teens say.
"I find it easier to talk to people (in IM). They are more approachable," says Jennie Hartsell, a seventh-grader from Lewisville, Tex. "If you're trying to have a conversation with someone in person, it's harder."
The relative anonymity offers kids confidence.
"Katherine and I played a joke on this boy from my school," Jennie says. "He didn't know who she was, and she told him that she was madly in love with him. We finally told him who we really were. We would never have done that in person."
The concept behind instant messaging is not all that new. You don't have to go back far to trace a similar pattern with today's parents and another device.
"It used to be that 'tweens and teens rushed home from school every day and picked up the telephone," says Katherine Borsecnik, president of AOL Brand Management and Programming. "Now they race to the computer, and they love instant messaging with their friends. We have found that the AOL service virtually lights up after school as students get home to chat."
Twelve-year-old Eric Vo of Irving, Tex., likes IM because "it's writing instead of talking so you don't have to worry about being embarrassed. And you can find out stuff that happened at school."
When writing, kids don't have to worry about embarrassments such as stammering.
Eric says he's not really addicted to IM, even though he has 113 people on his list. Eric goes to private school, and because most of his classmates don't live in his neighborhood, he says, IM lets him stay connected with them after school.
"I don't spend all of my time on the computer," he says. "I do have a life. I'm very active in sports with basketball, baseball and aggressive skating."
Maintaining balance is essential with this teen phenomenon. As with anything habit-forming, moderation is key, says parenting expert Kate Kelly, author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Parenting a Teenager" (Alpha Books, $16.95). Kelly has three daughters, ages 12, 17, and 21.
"It's like the telephone you monitor the time spent," she says. "It's healthier than the time we spent on the phone with just one person in that these kids are online with different kids sharing diverse ideas and experiences. It also lets them interact with more than just one circle of friends. They can talk to the group from dance, from school, a cousin out of town. It helps make teens more well-rounded."
If there is a dedicated computer line in the home, she says, parents should restrict time based on kids' other obligations mainly homework, chores and extracurricular activities. Without a dedicated line, it comes down to how long parents can handle having the phone tied up.
"My kids sometimes try to trick me into not knowing how long they've been online, but I've never had to set times because they are pretty disciplined," she says.
Younger teens and preteens are the heaviest IM users, Kelly says. Of her daughters, her 12-year-old uses IM the most.
Anne Hartsell, Jennie's mom, says younger teens turn to IM because they can't drive.
"I noticed as soon as Jennie's big sister Betsy turned 16 and got her license, the IM time dropped off significantly," she says.
Kids under 16 agree that IM is a nice substitute for driving, because it allows them to get together. It also teaches them multitasking. They talk to 10 buddies while researching homework online, talking to parents, chatting on the phone or doing their nails. You can't really talk to parents while you're on the phone, says Stephanie Mangan, 15, of Cedar Hill, Tex.
Stephanie receives an IM from her friend Mark Bishop during a telephone interview for this story. Why not bring him into the conversation?
"I'm talking to a reporter from The Dallas Morning News," she types. "She would like to know if guys are into IM?"
"Well, yeah, guys like IM," Mark types back.
Stephanie has 83 people on her buddy list, and she talks with as many as 10 at a time.
"I love it that I can get on and talk to one friend or 10 any time I want to," she says. "If there is something I want to tell them, I can just tell them without interruption. My friends like it because we can all talk at once. We talk about homework and the things we do at school and maybe boyfriends."
Stephanie messages out-of-state relatives, her godparents in Georgia and her best friend, who moved to Georgia last year. She checks in with her dad when she gets home from school. She says he is learning the lingo and often uses abbreviations.
"He always says, first thing, 'What's your homework?' and 'Don't eat junk food,' " Stephanie says.
Her parents are stricter about her telephone time, she says, and when she is grounded, they take away the phone before her computer privileges.
Brittany Stephens says her parents have been more lenient with her considering her circumstances. Seven months ago, the 14-year-old from Arlington, Tex., broke her legs in an accident and was confined to a wheelchair, crutches and now a walking brace. She has school lessons at home and has not seen much of her friends.
Brittany goes online four times a day, and IM keeps her sane, she says. She messages out-of-town cousins and friends without the worry of long-distance costs. Her parents limit her long-distance calls, but they never complain about her long-distance IMs.
"I talk to everybody from all over ... but mostly I miss my friends from school. And it's a good way to keep up," she says.
Brittany says as many as 20 of her 109 buddies are sometimes online at once, but the most she's had going in IM are eight.
"It's kind of like a game keeping up with everybody," she says. "You have six or seven talking all at once. You'll answer the wrong question to the wrong person, and they'll say, 'Huh?' Then you have to explain. I've gotten real good at it."