Part one of a series

PALO ALTO, Calif. — For teens, “online social networking” is the new thing, and it’s thrilling. For parents, “online social networking” is mysterious and scary.

Just as parents were getting familiar with Internet chat rooms, online social networking has raised the bar. Many parents are still in the dark about what online social networking is, or unaware that their kids are regular participants on websites like MySpace.

News stories provide a word of warning: online child predators, cyberbullying, malicious chat and inappropriate photos have caused problems and raised concerns among parents, schools, clergy and lawmakers.

But for media-saturated kids growing up online, social networking sites are where they hang out and connect with their friends.

Facebook is the primary means of communication for 15-year-old Will Troppe, a member of Our Lady Queen of Peace parish in Arlington, Va., who joined the service last year. He uses the telephone for more “urgent matters” and e-mail for contacting his teachers at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax, Va.

All of his friends at school use Facebook, though some of his classmates are against it.

“I’m careful about what I put up and what I make available for people to see. Only people I’m friends with can see my profile,” he said, noting that he spends only about 15 or 20 minutes a day on Facebook.

He likes the fact that he can keep in touch with classmates from his former high school, including one living in Bangladesh, and search out former friends from elementary school.

His parents have attended school meetings about Internet safety and talked to Will about it. They also keep the computer in the family room where the screen is visible.

Mikki, his mother, respects his privacy, but will scan his profile if he leaves it on the screen.

“I still worry that he might put something on that could identify him to somebody outside his Facebook network, but it seems fairly innocuous. I don’t stand over his shoulder and watch what he’s doing,” said Mikki. “I definitely think Will is old enough to manage this.”

Fifty-five percent of American youths age 12-17 use a social networking website, according to a study by the Washington-based Pew Internet & American Life Project. Older teens, particularly girls, are more likely to use these sites, namely to stay in touch with friends and make plans with them. Just half of those surveyed use the sites to make new friends.

MySpace, based in Beverly Hills, Calif., and Facebook, based in Palo Alto, Calif., are the reigning social networking sites, with a combined 94 million members in the United States., according to recent figures.

Other popular sites include Friendster, Bebo, Xanga and Orkut. Users create personal profiles, post photos, blogs, videos, favorite music and other interests, and build a network of “friends.” They can also join group networks from their school, city or special interest.

Businesses and even celebrities are utilizing social networking sites to promote themselves or their product. MySpace and YouTube are particularly rife with commercialism.

In addition, there are about 500 niche social networking sites, covering everything from pet lovers to professional connections.

MySpace, launched nine years ago by Los-Angeles-based eUniverse, made headlines last year when it announced that it found and deleted 29,000 child sex predators from the site.

That set off calls for action, and both MySpace and Facebook have taken major steps to protect their users from predators.

Both companies agreed to new registry information that would help them block sex offenders from their sites, and support a comprehensive legislation in New York called “E-Stop” that creates the first mandatory ban on sexual predators from social networking sites.

MySpace users can make their profiles private so that only friends in their network can view it. However, most pages are public.

Facebook, which started as a closed network for college students in 2004, and only opened to the public in September, 2006, is designed so that everyone must log in and be accepted as a friend before viewing someone’s profile.

Both sites have minimum age requirement of 13 or 14. But there is little independent verification of age, and photographs of pre-teens are common. It’s not uncommon for kids to post a different name or city, because they’ve gotten the message not to give personal identification online.

The purported safety tips and privacy measures are not enough for Chrissy and Andy Klaesges of St. Charles Borromeo Church in Minneapolis, who are still learning about social networking sites. When their eighth-grade daughter wanted a MySpace profile to connect with her Catholic school classmates, they said No.

“We’re not close-minded about it, but I’m wary of MySpace and Facebook at this point until I do get more information,” said Chrissy. “If it’s something I think I can control as far as safety issues, I might look at it in the future. For right now in our family, the Internet is a tool for the kids to do research, not for entertainment or social networking.”

Parents should approach social networking sites like anything else that requires their supervision, said Brian Barcaro, founder of 4Marks, a social networking site for Catholics, and the dating site, The worst thing a parent can do is “bury his head” and ignore it.

“The likelihood of kids doing something through social networking sites or online is much higher when they have little communication with the parent, and research supports this,” he said. “When parents are involved and talk to their kids about social networking, statistics show that a) their kids use sites more conservatively, and b) are less likely to do something stupid on the site.”

Barcaro gives talks on Internet use and safety to parent and teen groups. One of the most common questions he gets from parents is how to solve conflicts that their kids experience online.

In one example, a mother told him about some girls at her daughter’s high school that were posting things on MySpace about her, causing rumors to flare. The mom had her shut down the account and get off MySpace, and wondered if she did the right thing. Barcaro asked her what she would have done had MySpace not been involved. The mother said she would have contacted the parents of the girls and/or the school.

“Because it happened on MySpace, she felt like she was in a realm that was not controllable by her,” said Barcaro. “It’s simply a tool. Don’t be a different parent because it’s a social networking website.”

While the social networking phenomenon rages on, these sites are trending downward a bit in numbers of participants.

MySpace and Facebook users declined a bit in January. February numbers may drop even more after the first annual International Delete Your MySpace Account Day Jan. 30.

As the first wave of online social networking users move from college into the workforce, many are realizing their private online social lives are in fact, very public, and often viewed by potential employers who see their unbecoming photos or language and don’t hire them. High school athletes are frequently disciplined for drinking, as noted on their Facebook photos easily viewed by school officials.

LinkedIn, based in Mountain View, Calif., is an online site primarily for professional networking. It was launched in 2003.

And here’s a new twist: Recent news stories have reported that some Catholic and Christian students are giving up social networking for Lent. It’s more addicting than chocolate.

Barb Ernster is based in

Fridley, Minnesota.