The most rapidly spreading threat to the Internet may not be nasty viruses, commercial spam or even endlessly repeating humor emails. The Internet may instead be brought to its knees by America Online’s AOL Instant Messenger in the hands of teenagers.

AOL Instant Messenger, or AIM, is a private way to exchange brief text messages between two people who are online at the same time. A “Buddy List” notifies you when someone you want is available. Type, and you’re in touch.

But like any technology, AIM can be dangerous in the wrong hands; especially if they are hands attached to the fingertips of a pre- or early teen.

Odds are, if teens have Internet access at home, they are not spending all of their time online researching homework or surfing cultural and scientific web sites. They’re also instant messaging, keeping in touch with the classmates they just left on the bus.

At first, I thought this affliction was unique to my 13-year-old son. Then I discovered that my son has 65 entries in his Buddy List and those are just the girls. Twenty more entries are boys.

Instead of calling to see if someone’s home, he just logs on. Why not call? The appeal is multitasking: A teen can have multiple conversations going in multiple windows and still not miss downloading the latest Britney Spears screen saver.

Like telephone party lines and malls were for earlier generations, AIM has become the gathering place for Gen AOL. AOL’s numbers back this up, claiming more than 90 million Buddy List network members. The average AIM user spends close to three hours on the service each day, up 40 percent from six months ago.

It could get worse. AOL’s newest version, AIM 4.0, lets images and verbal chat be exchanged. And AIM isn’t the only instant messaging game in town. Not only does AOL also own ICQ, but Microsoft, Yahoo, AT&T, AltaVista and others have their own systems.

Many of these companies are chomping at the bit to get their instant messaging software working with AOL’s – to the point that, last week, 40 companies asked the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission to support opening up AOL’s instant messaging network as a condition of AOL’s acquisition of Time Warner.

The true “killer application” for the Internet may not be email or e-commerce, but instant messaging. At least as far as parents are concerned. Because it’s killing any chance they’ll ever get on the Internet once their teen discovers it.

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