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He became close friends with Clark Mueller, 18, of Columbia, Mo., after Mueller solicited Saribay, a.k.a. hawaiiansuperman, in an online community forum for Macintosh enthusiasts, for some Hawaii sightseeing tips a few years ago.

The strangers-turned-pals haven’t met in person. But they have watched each other eating while talking online, using a popular video conferencing program that piggybacks on AOL Instant Messenger.

“It’s great – 50 years ago this was impossible. Your friends ranged from those maybe five miles away to across the hall,” Saribay said. “But this generation, we could communicate with whoever we want – time and place doesn’t matter.”

Contrary to some perceptions, youths spend most of their time online communicating with people they know, not strangers, said Elisheva Gross, a psychology researcher at the Children’s Digital Media Center at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Far from digging a social black hole, they are using high-tech means to maintain or expand their network of relationships.

“It’s used to hang out with friends, relieve boredom, or flirt,” Gross said.

And while experts agree that communication in the online world can be as wonderful or painful as it is in the off-line world, psychologists are only in the first stages of studying how faceless interactions affect a teenager’s social development.

Initial observations are that, more than shaping one’s personality, the use of online communication extends existing habits and traits.

“If they happen to not be physically active already in life, then I think the Internet just pushes them in the direction of not doing anything,” said Kaveri Subrahmanyam, an associate professor of child development at California State University in Los Angeles.

“But if they’re already active, the Internet doesn’t pull them away, it just bolsters their activity.”

For instance, 15-year-old Gabby McCone of Seattle, spends hours online daily instant messaging her friends but she is also on her school basketball team and plays guitar, often using the Web to find music sheets.

Meanwhile, bullies in so-called “meatspace” will find just another way to taunt with cyberspace, experts say. Of course, it’s easier to block out the bullies online. There’s software for that.

It’s a tough, sometimes subjective, call, to say whether young people’s lives are made richer or not.

“Teens are doing the same types of things, but they’re doing it in different ways than they may have done before,” Subrahmanyam said. “They’re not meeting friends face-to-face as much, but that’s how we’ve all changed. So we can’t compare teenagers today to teenagers from 20 years ago.”

Nearly three-quarters of the nation’s teens use the Internet, and about half say the online resources improve their friendships, according to a 2001 study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

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