Youth minister Chris Weber started his talk to parents about teens and social networking with this helpful hint - if you see "PLOS" on the screen, be aware: It means Parent Looking Over Shoulder.
Weber, from the Muscatine Catholic Community in Iowa, acknowledged that services such as MySpace and Facebook can be frightening to parents as a milieu for their children to potentially be exposed to cyber predators, cyber bullies and sexually explicit material.
Weber, who was asked by St. Columba to speak after a parish official heard him at a national conference, said social networking is the parlance of this generation and parents are better off mastering it than ignoring or fighting it.
"We have to give them skills to protect themselves," he said. More pointedly, he later added, "'I don't get it,' is not a valid excuse."
Illustrating how wired young people today are, he threw out these statistics: -93 percent report using the Internet regularly.
-The average number of text messages they send per month is more than 1,000.
-The average number of free-time hours per week they spend on the computer is nearly 17, more than even television.
"Young people today have never known a world without the Internet," he said.
Social networking sites, which have gained huge popularity in the last five years, allow users to share information, photos and videos as well as comment on the postings of others.
Weber said MySpace's network generally is more open while Facebook users restrict access to their profiles to a list of "friends." Web logs, or blogs, and YouTube are other conduits teens can use for posting.
The capacity for self-expression these tools offer makes them powerfully alluring, he said, but they also can serve as a weapon, a distraction or a crutch.
"We are raising a generation of kids that lack some of the basic, face-to-face social skills," he said.
He told parents they must impart to their children that their actions online have implications in the nondigital world. If parents seek to make themselves a part of their children's online lives at an early age, then they are less likely to face resistance in the difficult teen years, he said.
He said parents should seek (with young children, demand) the ability to see networking pages or accounts, if only for monitoring purposes. They should place the family computer in a central location, restrict access to it, if necessary, and use parental controls or filters to block material they consider unsuitable.
Parents should teach their children to be cautious about the personal information they post and think about how it portrays them.
Afterward, parent Kathleen McInnis said she had struggled with whether to allow her daughter to open a Facebook account and found the talk very helpful.
"I like the idea of the monitor-only account," she said.
She said it sends the message that "I'm here, and I'm watching."
Weber said more and more adults are using Facebook and joked that this probably signals the imminent decline of its popularity among teens.
He recommended parents view the PBS special "Growing Up Online" at www.pbs.org online.