A man chats in an Internet Relay Chat (IRC) chat room in 2000.

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Chat rooms -- like e-mail, instant messaging (IM) and online social networks -- are virtual extensions of real-world human interaction. Chat rooms are online spaces where users communicate with one another through text-based messages. It's like a virtual cocktail party, where strangers gather to flirt, argue about politics and sports, ask for advice, talk about shared hobbies and interests, or simply hang out.

Chat rooms have played an important role in the evolution of interpersonal communication over computer networks. E-mail came first in 1972 [source: NetHistory]. Then came USENET, an e-mail based newsgroup started in 1979. Newsgroups became bulletin boards. Some bulletin board users wanted to interact with the group in real time instead of waiting to reply to an ongoing message thread. In the late '70s and early '80s, several small bulletin board communities incorporated chat and IM into their networks.

But the CompuServe CB simulator is widely regarded as the first real-time chat room. Launched to the public in 1980, the CB simulator capitalized on the explosive (if short-lived) popularity of citizen's band radio culture in American country music and movies [source: PC Magazine]. Users could exchange real-time messages (loaded with lots of CB slang) on 40 different channels, which later evolved into the concept of rooms.

In the mid-1980s, a company called PlayNet began tinkering with the combination of real-time chat and online games. Users could play chess or backgammon against an opponent and talk trash at the same time. PlayNet eventually licensed its software to a company called Quantum Link, or Q-Link, which launched a chat room service called People Connection. Q-Link changed its name to America Online (AOL), which still uses the People Connection name for its chat and community services.

­In the late 1990s, AOL's chat rooms were some of the most popular in the world. According to statistics from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 55 percent of online teens and 28 percent of online adults used chat rooms in 2000 [source: Pew Internet & American Life Project]. But by 2005, those numbers had fallen to 18 percent of teens and 17 percent of adults [source: Pew Internet & American Life Project]. Over the years, chat rooms have lost ground to IM and social networks, and have suffered from bad press concerning their safety, especially for teens.

But how do you get started using a chat room? And how do you make sure you and your children have a safe, enjoyable chat room experience? Read on to find out more.