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 emailing."
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.
Rod Carveth, 53, of New Britain, Conn., made his teenage daughter include him as a friend when she signed up for MySpace and Facebook. He wanted to make sure she wasn't posting anything inappropriate or revealing too much personal information.
He has had to ask her to remove messages that contained vulgar language.
"It started mostly as a check," says Carveth, an instructor at the University of Hartford, whose daughter is now 16. "Since then, it has evolved to where I will leave messages, 'Have a nice day. Don't forget to do this.' That kind of thing. And she's responded to me as well."
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. Michael Solomon, a professor of marketing at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia, says teens who post suggestive photos or inappropriate messages will block their parents from accessing the information anyway.
"It can backfire," says Solomon. "It can embarrass the kids and their friends and create resentment."
Anastasia Goodstein, author of "Totally Wired: What Teens and Tweens Are Really Doing Online" (St. Martin's Griffin, 2007), believes parents should keep a discreet distance on social networking sites.
"I do think it can bring them closer together" by helping parents learn more about their children's interests and friends, she says. "Where it gets tricky is, what's happening on social networking sites is really conversations between teens and their friends. You're not just listening in on your own teen. Suddenly, you are hearing what all their friends are doing as well."
Goodstein sees these sites as the new mall, a place where teenagers can hang out without authority figures.
Adults also should remember that teenagers are watching them back.
Liz Funk, 19, a senior at Pace University in New York City, says it was strange to see one of her high school teachers send a drink to another on Facebook.
Funk, who blogs about tween and teen girls, adds, "I really can't recommend that parents get accounts for the sole purpose of monitoring their children. I think what's more important is parents need to engage their kids in dialogue about what is and what isn't appropriate to be posted online."
Jeff Berman, president of sales and marketing for MySpace, says most parents are pursuing their own interests on the site, not just watching the kids.
"Other than the front door you come through at MySpace.com, you might never see the same content or have the same experience," he says. "You might be on MySpace just to discover great music, share it with your friends. Your mom might be on MySpace to share photos and to blog, and never the two shall meet."
At Facebook, which was originally created for college students, the number of users age 35-54 more than tripled in the 12 months ending in July, according to the site's survey of 3,100 users. The 13-34 age group doubled, and the number of users age 65 and up grew by 150 percent.
Kel Kelly, 45, Julia McGovern's mom, says she didn't join Facebook to spy on her daughter or be part of her crowd. She doesn't friend her daughter's friends, and if one of them friends her, she makes sure to tell their parents.
Sometimes she sees photos or messages she doesn't like, but she doesn't intervene unless it's something dangerous.
Julia says her mom never crosses the line.
"It's become an easy way to interact with her, to keep her in my life," says Julia, who is heading to Syracuse University in the fall and plans to use the site to keep in touch with mom. "It will be a lot easier than making phone calls."