(Steve Lait/MediaNews)

The angst was palpable on Facebook.

"My mom tried to add me on Facebook today," read one online posting, "and I had to deny my own flesh and blood. You'd have done the same."

Once upon a time, Facebook was a gathering place for college kids. No one had access to the social networking site started by Harvard students in 2004 without a university e-mail address.

But two years ago, Facebook opened its virtual doors to everyone and now, OMG. Parents are everywhere. Adults older than 35 accounted for 3.6 million — 9 percent — of the Facebook demographic last year and the numbers just keep growing.

Among them: UC Berkeley junior Molly Green's parents. It "freaks people out," she says, when Mom and Dad pop up online. Facebook is "just such a part of our generation," says Green, "that it doesn't really make sense to me why my parents would want in on it. Most young people expect it to be a place where they interact with their friends, without worrying about what their parents will think."

Several Facebook support groups have popped up in the past year, including the 709-member "And then my Mom joined Facebook" group, organized by "The Bureau of Endangered Generation Gaps" and featuring such discussion topics as "Should I Friend My Mom?" and "What if Grandma Pokes Me?"

While some parents get on Facebook to check up on their teens or stay close to kids away at college, many do so for work-related reasons — to interact with colleagues or, in the case of Walnut Creek mom Karen Hershenson, because her employer, San Francisco Performances, wanted an online presence in the social networks.

But Hershenson worries about appearing intrusive to her college kids, and she's still grappling with the strangeness of the language — the pokes, the friending and karma points — and hoping she doesn't "make a cyber fool of myself."

There's no doubt teens and college kids think of Facebook as "theirs," says Larry Rosen, a CSU Dominguez Hills psychology professor who wrote "Me, MySpace and I: Parenting the Net Generation."

Most Facebook users are savvy about Internet safety. They've played in this particular arena for years, and Mom and Dad's sudden appearance in its hallowed virtual halls is viewed with more than a little suspicion, especially when they hear about it from their friends first, as in, "Your mom poked me."

Talk to your teens before you friend them, says Rosen.

"Trust is critical," he says. "You have to give your kids some privacy. Parents have to remember this is their social world."

And discuss limits — on your behavior. Contacting your teen's friends on Facebook without his permission is tantamount, says Rosen, to saying, "'Hey, give me a list of all your friends' phone numbers for emergencies,' and then you started called your kids' friends."

Families who use Facebook to stay close are careful of boundaries. UC Santa Cruz senior Heather Knight worried when her father first got a Facebook profile.

"Supposedly he created it because my whole family works at Cazadero music camp," the El Cerrito High grad says, "so he used it as an excuse that it's a great way to stay in touch with everybody. I didn't really believe it."

So Knight uses a limited profile so her parents can't see, well, everything.

"I wouldn't want my parents seeing pictures of me at parties," she says. "It's not incriminating stuff, but parents would rather think you're home on a Friday night studying. My dad's pretty good about it. He knows it would be weird if he wrote on our walls or poked our friends."

And Stephanie Wiseman, a recent Ohio State graduate, hasn't run into problems, even though her entire tech-savvy family is online.

"My grandfather's on there," she says. "My uncle has a facebook group for our family and I know he's posted a few photos of family events and weddings."

When Wiseman's mother joined the online network, Wiseman launched a gently humorous Facebook group called "My Mom Just Joined Facebook, Make Her Feel Welcome." Her mother, Boston Web designer Helene Rudolph, loves it.

"She had shown me her (profile) and it was like, oh, this is pretty cool the way they're all connecting," says Rudolph. "They could find people with common interests. It made the world smaller."

Now Rudoph uses the site to connect not only with her daughters, but friends and colleagues too.

"I try to find a delicate balance," says Rudolph, "and not pry into the stuff that's not our business — and most parents don't want to know anyway. It's fun to see all the cute pictures, connect names and friends. But you walk a very fine line to make sure you're not intruding. It's not my playground."

Of course, then there's the other problem, much-kvetched about on some Facebook groups: What happens when Mom's Facebook popularity exceeds yours?

"Perhaps," Rudolph recalls telling her daughter, "you have underestimated my awesomeness."

Contact Jackie Burrell at jburrell@bayareanewsgroup.com.

Facebook etiquette for parents
  • Friends: On Facebook, someone you invite to be your friend can accept, decline, or restrict you to a limited version of that person's own profile. It's less damaging to your ego if you talk with your teens before you try to "friend" them. Friending your teen's friends, without your teen's explicit permission, imperils happy family relations.
  • WALLS: If you wouldn't holler it to your kid on the front steps of his school, don't post it on his Facebook wall where his friends can read it. That said, if your teen or his friends are bantering with you on your wall, theirs are fair game.
  • poking: A Facebook "poke" is like a little "hi." Don't poke your teens' friends.
  • GROUPS: Part of the fun of Facebook is joining groups of like-minded folks who adore Harry Potter or regard Morucci's as the golden deity of Bay Area delis.
  • Avoid family humiliation: Just in case it's not obvious, don't post pictures of yourself drunk, dressed scantily or otherwise engaged in dubious activities.