@ summer camp in Vermont, Caroline Picker made friends from all over the world. When camp was over, she thought they'd lose touch. Not a chance. Even though her pals are now scattered from Germany to Cambodia and points in between, she always knows what they're up to.
From her home in Belmont, Mass., the high school sophomore fires off e-mail missives to her foreign friends every day after school. And within hours or even minutes, she hears that welcome chime "You've got mail."
So much for corresponding by post. "That would take weeks!" says Caroline.
Letter writing faces extinction as millions of teenagers like Caroline connect daily with their buddies via the Internet. Moreover, conversing online is quickly emerging as the tool of social necessity, rising to the status of the shopping mall as a place where the Nintendo generation goes to loiter and gossip.
Some kids use the phone less and sacrifice sleep and sports to stay in touch. But experts generally see the online connection as a positive development for an age group that craves social bonds - and wants to know who's going with whom.
Today, 43 percent of American teens use the Net, according to Global TGI, a market research firm. By 2000, that number will climb to 75 percent.
Although most teenagers say they still prefer talking by telephone because they can convey emotion, in Monitor interviews conducted by e-mail many teens say they spend more time online. Reasons vary. First, online communication is relatively fast, cheap, and easy - particularly compared to long-distance phone calls. Then there's the hipness of the medium.
"Teenagers always have to be up on what's new," says Journey Henkart, a high school junior from Novato, Calif. "Since e-mail is now the cool thing, teens want to find out what the big fuss is about."
Also, parents often cut teenagers more slack with computer time than telephone time, says Journey. "The computer equals freedom for some teens. I know a few families that say kids have to be off the phone at 8 p.m., but they can be on the computer as long they want."
Often this is because parents don't feel comfortable enough themselves with the medium, so they avoid it altogether, says Dr. Gery LeGagnoux, professor of psychology at UCLA.
Sarah Bowman of Cambridge, Mass., doesn't mind this laissez-faire attitude a bit. "It's one of the few things I know more about than my parents!" she says. "It gives me a sense of independence."
One of the biggest attractions for teenagers is the ability to connect with more than one person at a time, through chat rooms and instant messaging.
Since her mom signed her up for e-mail a year ago, Caroline now corresponds with between 20 to 30 friends. Before she wrote letters to only 5 to 10 friends.
And Abi Peterson, an eighth grader in Ashland, Mass., says she has 52 people on her "buddy list," a feature that instantly informs online users when their "buddies" are online.
"With my boyfriend or really good friends, it is easier to talk on the phone even though we talk online too. But with ex-boyfriends and friends who live far away, it's easier to send e-mail. That way, I can respond when I have time or when I want to," she says.
Abi's habits are typical of many teens today, says Idit Harel, founder of MaMaMedia, a New York-based firm that studies the impact of technology and the media on children.
"E-mail and chat aren't really 'replacing' the phone," she explains. "Rather, they are simply added options in kids' portfolio of communications tools. It's not unusual for them to talk on the phone while they are online or watching TV. Or to go online to discuss a video game or e-mail a friend about a phone conversation."
Staying in touch this way comes naturally to teens, she adds. "Unlike adults, they are not in awe of technology. The Internet offers them a unique opportunity to connect with a community of shared interests and to express individuality."
A glance at the e-mail shorthand in use shows that teens' individuality is thriving. Only one teenager interviewed doesn't use e-slang ("It's lame and annoying," says Dawn Rossiter of Connecticut), but others enjoy creating their own shorthand. Favorite expressions include: "Wazup?, lol (laugh out loud), brb (be right back), and pos (parent over shoulder).
Another way kids choose to express their individuality online is by custom-designing greeting cards with text, graphics, animation, and sound. "This kind of message is to e-mail what color TV is to black-and-white," says Tony Levitan, co-founder of E-greetings network, which boasts 350,000 teen clients.
Of course, online chatter isn't always so harmless. Predators sometimes lurk in those chat rooms. And pornographic Internet sites abound. Some parents install software or choose an Internet provider that can monitor, block, and filter certain sites. Others just set limits on their teens' online use, banning them from entering chat rooms or browsing the Net for uses other than homework-related research.
"I used to go into chat rooms, but my parents disagreed with the idea," says Journey. "They explained the dangers of hackers and weirdos who pretend to be people they are not. So I just stick to e-mails. I think it's safer."
Dr. LeGagnoux would also suggest that parents spend time online with their children. "If the teen objects too strenuously, suspect something is wrong. Social privacy is a privilege -not a right -for early and mid teens, and it should be earned by responsible behavior."
Many parents see the value of e-mail and they encourage these online pen-pal relationships flourish as long as household limits are respected.
In Los Angeles, Robert Butterworth, the father of a 13-year-old, has noticed a big change in his son since he started e-mailing friends.
"His self-esteem has improved, and he seems to have gotten over his shyness with girls," says Mr. Butterworth. "Paper communication was almost extinct with teens, especially males. E-mail is the best thing since sliced bread."
On average, American teens spend about two hours daily online, which means less time for other activities. Most say homework and chores aren't negotiable; they must be done before turning on the computer.
But in a poll conducted recently by Simmons, a leading market research firm, more than half a million teenage boys polled said they spend less time sleeping because of the Internet, and 1.8 million teens watch less TV.
Teenagers who don't have access to e-mail may be better rested and know more about popular sitcoms, but they often feel left out of a social world they know is zipping along without them.
Some social workers are concerned that the Internet is driving yet another wedge between the haves and the have nots.
Kelley Hynds of Brecksville, Ohio, sums up the sentiment of those who aren't yet wired: "I don't have e-mail. In fact, I don't even know how to use it. The only thing I do know is that I should learn how - and fast."