Does it seem like your teenage daughter is forever glued to the computer screen, with one hand clacking away on the keyboard and the other deftly maneuvering the mouse? The private sphere she is able to create for herself at the drop of a mouse-click may have something to do with the growing popularity of social networking sites—an online medium that allows people to create a unique mini-webpage (referred to as a profile) and correspond with other site members (basic membership at all social networking sites is free). According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 93% of teens use the Internet, and well over half of this group (55%) use social networking sites. Chances are your teen is one of them.

So, what should parents know about the online communities their teens are visiting? Here’s a guide to the three most popular social networking sites:


  1. MySpace: Owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch, MySpace is flashy, loud, and doesn’t shy away from large, somewhat distracting advertisement banners. MySpace doesn’t place a limit on how many “friends” members can have. In fact, television personality Tila Tequila rose to pop culture fame by garnering over one million friends on the site. The emphasis at MySpace is on making friends and meeting people—making it the closest thing the Internet has to an online disco. While this can be a lot of fun, it also may increase the likliehood of teens coming into contact with unwanted strangers. Social networking sites, MySpace included, are always working to improve security and privacy features. Parents who are concerned about the potential for cyberpredators trolling their child’s profile should make sure their child has set all her privacy options to “friends only.” This insures the page is only viewable to people your child has approved as a friend.
  2. Facebook: Founded in 2004 by Harvard alumni Mark Zuckerberg as a way for students and alumni to keep in touch, Facebook has grown into a hugely popular social networking site that is open to everyone. If MySpace is a wild nightclub, Facebook is a quiet college campus café. Ads are small and whisked to the side, the layout is a muted, somewhat preppy blue and white, and the emphasis at Facebook is on keeping in touch with people you already know. When a member adds a friend to his profile, a dialog box pops up listing various possible ways you might know the person—for example, “Attended school together,” “Worked together,” or “I don’t even know this person.” If you click on this last option another small dialog box appears that reads, “Then why are you adding them?” The close-knit feel that Facebook provides would make it a good choice for teens looking to share an online experience with the real-life friends they already have.
  3. Friendster: Only slightly younger than MySpace, and two years older than Facebook, Friendster considerably trails behind both in popularity. Friendster sets itself apart with a feature that allows users to see who has been hanging out at their profile (commonly known as “lurking” in cyber-parlance). However, it’s important to keep in mind that members control whether or not they are “seen” looking at profiles. So it’s very likely that the list of members viewing any given page is only a partial one. Friendster is simple and easy to navigate with a clean bright layout. It just doesn’t seem to have enough of whatever magical quality attracts teens in order to compete with the aforementioned big boys of social networking.

And the good news is, there's nothing stopping you from joining in the fun. So, while your own kids are busy on these social networking sites, get involved with your own online neighborhood in the Community.