Mom: Hey, junior, let's be friends

Julia McGovern was shocked when her mom sent her a “friend” request on Facebook. She had been on the social networking site for four years and had no idea her mother even knew what it was.

“It was my world,” says Julia, 18, of Hopkinton, Mass. “She was still just e-mailing.”

Not anymore. Parents are flocking to social networking sites – sometimes to monitor their kids, and sometimes for the same reason teenagers signed up: to communicate and to share.

For some teens, this can feel like an intrusion on their virtual space. For others, it's just a new way to stay in touch with mom and dad. It depends, experts say, on how well parents and kids communicate, online and off.

In general, teenagers are closer to their parents today than in previous generations, says Nancy Robinson, consumer strategist for Iconoculture, a cultural trends research firm in Minneapolis. Kids today often prefer hanging out with their parents to being holed up in their room, she says.

That can easily extend to social networking sites, which – after texting – are the No. 2 way that teens communicate technologically, according to Don Tapscott, author of “Growing Up Digital” (1997) and the upcoming “Grown Up Digital” (both from McGraw-Hill Professional).

Dylan Akers, 17, of Cambridge, Mass., invited his mom, Carolyn Bailey, to join Facebook and helped set up her page. Bailey, 46, a health and fitness counselor, says she has had more conversations on Facebook with her son's friends than with him.

“I think everybody views my mom as a cool mom,” says Dylan. “I'm pretty open with her about my life. I don't have to be too careful. Whatever I put on there, I wouldn't mind her knowing.”

Many parents feel they need to monitor their kids online. Some limit their teenagers' online exposure to strangers by using the sites' stricter privacy settings.

Some experts warn that parents who “friend” their kids without being invited to can send the teens a message that they don't trust them. “It can backfire,” says Michael Solomon, a professor at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia. “It can embarrass the kids and their friends and create resentment.”