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Inside the chat room, generally there is a list of the people currently online, who also are alerted that another person has entered the chat room. The message is almost immediately visible in the larger communal message area and other users respond.

Users can enter chat rooms and read messages without sending any, a practice known as lurking.

Teens, in particular, are drawn to chat rooms, because they allow them to experiment with different selves.

Over the years, there have been several high-profile news stories concerning adults who have masqueraded as teenagers in chat rooms in order to lure teens into real-life sexual encounters.

There's even a popular television segment on Dateline NBC called "To Catch a Predator", which uses fake teen chatters as bait [source: MSNBC].

According to a recent study in the journal Pediatrics, 15 percent of 10 to 15-year-olds received an "unwanted sexual solicitation online" in 2007 [source: Ars Technica].

Disruptive users may verbally abuse other chatters, monopolize the conversation, or even just disable it by repeatedly typing the same word or phrase into the conversation, a practice (much frowned upon) known as scrolling.

Chat rooms can be found that focus on virtually any aspect of human endeavor or interest: there are current communities based on classic movies, Irish ancestry, baton twirling, and psychic readings, for example.

First of all, many chat sites are exclusively for chatters who are 18 or older.

Teens should congregate on sites and services designed for the exclusive use of younger chatters.

The next most important thing is choosing your nickname or user ID.

For example, if you're looking for honest advice about a personal problem, a chat room could be a great place to go.

You'll feel more comfortable sharing the details of your problem, because nobody knows you.

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