LOS ANGELES - Securing control of the family computer is no easy task on a weekend night in the McLeod household. But Miranda, it is clear, has had lots of practice.
By 9 p.m. on a Saturday, her little brother, Kyle, is banished to a friend's house, and Mom is dispatched to the bills stacked on the floor.
Then, looking like a cyberpunk Wonder Woman with silver bracelets, metallic nails and dark hair streaked with blond, the 16-year-old assumes her rightful place in front of the computer screen.
With a few keystrokes and the shriek of a modem, Miranda morphs into Zyshal, an avatar of multitasking powers. And none too soon. The instant messages - or IMs, in the relentlessly abbreviated lingo of America Online sophisticates - are pouring in.
Fingers flying at speeds that would be impressive even if she wasn't a typing class dropout, Miranda's electronic persona carries on simultaneous conversations with her best friend down the street, an ex-boyfriend in San Jose and a college guy in New Orleans, all while gallivanting around the World Wide Web and perusing her e-mail.
"I am completely different online than I am in real life," Zyshal-Miranda says. "In real life, I'm more worried about hurting people's feelings."
The offhand explanation cuts to the heart of why this ritual is quickly becoming as central to the social lives of American teen-agers in the late 1990s as going to the mall was for the same age group two decades earlier.
Like the mall, the Internet's corridors allow evasion of direct adult supervision in a space that is still relatively safe. But while mall culture seems to reinforce the strictures of adolescent conformity, cyberspace fosters experimentation.
Trapped in awkward, changing bodies like every generation of teen-agers, today's wired youth have a legal escape route from the flesh never before accessible on such a mass scale.
Online, screen names and personalities are changed at whim, and quick wit and fast typing matter more than the color of eye makeup.
"I find it easier not to use caps," Miranda says. "When you're trying to talk to eight people at once you don't have time for formalities."
Of course, children of all ages are increasingly partaking of cyberspace's seductive metaphysics.
(Lately, Miranda has had to share the keyboard with her mother, a social worker who is divorced and has struck up an e-mail correspondence with several male friends.)
But teen-agers are leading the way. The proportion of America's 20 million teen-agers who use the Internet has doubled to nearly one-third since 1996, according to Jupiter Communications, a research firm.
By 2002, Jupiter estimates that three-quarters of the nation's teen-agers will be online, a higher proportion than other age groups.
These youngsters are using it for schoolwork and to replace television, according to several recent studies. They are using it to cyber, the genteel shorthand for the often-graphic descriptions, fantasies and jokes about one-handed typing that constitute sexual encounters from behind the screen.
Mostly, though, they are using it to socialize in a realm that Sherry Turkle, a psychologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has begun to call ROL, for rest of life.
Turkle's 1995 book, "Life on the Screen," made the case that the online world provided the "moratorium space" that the psychologist Erik Erikson deemed essential for identity development in adolescence but that has largely evaporated in the preprofessional off-line world of high school.
Turkle says she now sees a fusion of real-life and online identity among adolescents that may enable a healthy expansion in how they think of themselves.
Miranda, who counts 41 people on her AOL buddy list, credits Zyshal for improving her off-line social life, although it also helped that some of her friends got their driver's licenses this year and that by junior year the social scene is less rigid.
Using a ubiquitous teen-age term of negativity, she described her pre-online social life as not terrific.
"To have friends you had to be in the really popular group and I just didn't fit the mold," she says. "Then when I came online, there were all these people who liked me because I was different."
For Miranda, the lure of the Net, with its pulsing, instant feedback and its ability to stave off loneliness, was so potent that her grades began to falter.
Last year she often logged on after school and didn't log off until 2 a.m. This year, she has cut back.
Which is good, because Kyle is back from his friend's house and eager to take over.
A role-playing game veteran who turned 13 this month, Kyle also admits to a phase that bordered on addiction when he invented Tarquinevermore, an elf best described as "humorous and studly."
Now, he wants to confide in a friend he met in his elfin disguise (which has also since changed).
Tonight he is burdened by something he has learned about his parents' divorce, and the way he learned it. It's too hard to talk about with school friends, but his online friend is helping him sort it out.
"She's 16, almost 17, and it's a lot easier to talk to her: one, because she's older; two, she doesn't have links to other people I know, and three, she has problems, too," Kyle says.
"She's somebody who understands that life isn't always fantastic."
Pub Date: 5/11/98