University of Minnesota researchers say they have discovered educational benefits of social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook.

The study also found that low-income students often are just as technologically savvy as their wealthier counterparts. The university says this contradicts results that previous studies suggested.

The information was collected over six months this year from students, ages 16 to 18, in 13 urban high schools in the Midwest and released today by the university.

The study found that of the students observed:

• 94 percent use the Internet.

•82 percent go online at home.

• 77 percent have a profile on a social networking site.

When asked what they learn from using social networking sites, the students listed technology skills at the top, then creativity, being open to new or diverse views and communication skills.

"Students using social networking sites are actually practicing the kinds of 21st-century skills we want them to develop to be successful today," said Christine Greenhow, a learning technologies researcher in the university's College of Education and Human Development and lead investigator of the study. "Students are developing a positive attitude towards using technology systems, editing and customizing content and thinking about online design and layout. ... "The websites offer tremendous educational potential."

The study goes against previous findings from the Pew Research Center in 2005 that suggest a "digital divide," where low-income students are technologically impoverished. The Pew study found that Internet usage by teenagers from families earning $30,000 or below was limited to 73 percent, 21 percentage points below what the University of Minnesota research shows.

The students in the university study were from families whose incomes were at or below the county median income and were taking part in an after-school program aimed at improving college access for low-income youth.

Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482