A rash of new studies by Harris Interactive, the PEW Report and a Cal State psychology professor -- and a new book by youth culture expert Anastasia Goodstein -- say teens are using MySpace, Facebook, et al, to deepen and enrich existing friendships, not to chat with strangers.
"It's a way to keep in touch with friends from school," said Abby Lloyd, a sophomore at Walnut Creek's Northgate High, "but also with friends that don't live around here. It's really easy to keep in touch, say 'Hi.'"
In just five years, social networks have exploded from a geeky niche to an enormously popular creative outlet involving tens of millions of people.
More than half the nation's youths ages 12-17, and 70 percent of girls 15-17, use social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook, according to the Pew Internet and American Life study released in January. And 91 percent of them use these sites to stay in touch with friends they see frequently.
They're not just chatting with them in the cafeteria, they're texting, e-mailing and posting on their MySpace pages and Facebook "walls."
For teens, particularly busy high school students who have little unsupervised free time, "the Web has become their virtual hangout," said Goodstein, "a place to go online after school or at night and connect with their friends away from the parental gaze.
Student leaders at Martinez' Alhambra High School go online every day, and they say their classmates do, too.
Sophomore Morgan Drury, for example, chats with friends and family online. Senior Stephanie Bridge keeps in touch with friends from her old junior high. And senior Sarah El Mossalamy uses Facebook to contact friends who've left for college.
MySpace may rule the teen world, she said, but once your friends graduate, it's all about college-centric Facebook.
Goodstein, a San Francisco-based youth culture expert, is just back from a book tour for "Totally Wired: What Teens and Tweens are Really Doing Online," now on its second printing.
What teens are doing online is all about socialization and friendship, Goodstein said. It's their younger siblings she worries about.
"Tweens should not be on MySpace; I'll come out and say it," said Goodstein. And, she adds pointedly, tweens' parents have to get over their technophobia and get a clue.
"I like the comparison between child/teen social network use and hanging out at Mel's Drive-In," said Walnut Creek psychologist and adolescence specialist Richard Freed. "However, if an 11-year-old went to Mel's, the older kids would tell him/her to get lost. Social networks do not have a good way of keeping out underage users."
"The younger kids have a certain naiveté," said Alhambra High junior Bethany Walls. "They don't understand the computer is a connection to everything."
Parents need to provide guidance online the same way they teach their children to avoid strangers at the playground, said El Mossalamy.
"The internet has become very much like playing at the playground," the Alhambra senior said. "Parents have to teach."
But teens who came of age with the Internet have grown savvy to its dangers, said Goodstein, and that includes strangers masquerading as children, whether they be predators or advertisers trying a new sales technique to build buzz for an energy drink.
"For some adult to just start chatting up," said Goodstein, "most teens are like, 'Oooh, get away.'"
But teens don't go online to bare their souls to strangers, she added. They go to chat with classmates, friends they met at camp, buddies who've left for college and their friends' friends, too.
At least four major studies of teen social networking use have come out in the past year, and what's particularly interesting in this sudden sea of statistics is the data on intimacy.
A recent Harris Interactive poll found that online communication actually strengthened and enriched existing friendships. Roughly half -- 52 percent -- of the teens polled said they felt "extremely" or "very" close to friends they only talk to in person or on the phone, but 77 percent felt that depth of emotion with friends they talked to both online and in person.
"Teen friendships that are nurtured in both the 'real' and 'virtual' worlds," youth research manager Suzanne Martin wrote in a Harris report last fall, "are more long-standing and intimate."
Why? Most teens told Harris pollsters that they felt they could "show more of their truer selves online," and that talking to their friends online made them feel as if they were "always connected."
Not exactly strangers
It's the potential connections to strangers that adults find so alarming, of course, particularly in light of statistics that say one in five teen users has encountered a sexually explicit message. What that statistic omits, however, is that three-quarters of those postings came from peers, not adults.
But the Harris poll found that more than a third of teens -- 36 percent -- had online friends they'd never met. That statistic can be misleading, too.
In the world of MySpace and Facebook, a "friend" is someone who's been allowed access to your Web page -- not your soul mate. And at least for Scott Dare, an Alhambra High senior, it's never a stranger. It's more a "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" kind of deal.
"If it's not someone I already know," Dare said, "it's someone I have a connection to, like 'Hey, you should talk to my cousin.'"
Online friends may include strangers, but the category also includes classmates' friends, siblings' friends and assorted college roommates. According to Harris, two-thirds of the teens polled said they felt only the most casual connection with their online-only buddies -- they felt "somewhat" or "not at all" close.
That's not to say there are no dangers to teens or that overblown predator fears are without any basis.
A study conducted earlier this year by Habbo.com, another online teen community, found that 19 percent of the 3,500 teens polled had encountered adults posing as children online, and 27 percent said that on at least one occasion someone had asked them sexual questions that made them feel uncomfortable. But 86 percent had discussed online safety with their parents.
Online sexual harassment or innuendo is cited in other studies, too.
A landmark CSU Dominguez Hills study of MySpace use, conducted by psychology professor Larry Rosen last year, found that 7 percent of MySpace users had been propositioned or been asked sexual questions at least once. But nearly every teen shrugged, blocked the sender and continued chatting with friends.
"MySpace," said Rosen, "is not a scary place."
Reach Jackie Burrell at firstname.lastname@example.org.