Here’s a topic for your next school/parent powwow: Teenagers, who know better than to talk to strangers, will divulge almost anything on the internet.

They’ll happily blab about themselves, their families, or their schools in exchange for a gift, according to a study released May 16 by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania.

The study underscores the need for parents to caution their children about divulging information to strangers on the internet—and for schools to reinforce this message.

For free stuff, not only will teenagers give out their names and addresses, but they’ll tell if their parents have skin problems, how many days of work their parents missed, whether the family drinks beer or wine at dinner, and how often the family goes to church.

“Parents should not take for granted that traditional cautions, such as ‘Don’t give out your name’ or ‘Don’t talk to strangers,’ will be enough for the web,” said Joe Turow, author of the report, called “The Internet and the Family 2000.” “The smallest bits of information divulged by kids about their home life can be aggregated using increasingly sophisticated tracking tools.”

Through registration or by placing a cookie on the visitor’s computer, teen-oriented commercial web sites gather information about their visitors to use for marketing purposes.

“Privacy rules [on commercial web sites] have more holes than Swiss cheese. Schools have to get into helping kids and parents recognize this,” Turow said. “Forty-six percent of parents didn’t understand that they are being tracked on the web—they didn’t understand the concept of cookies.”

Commercial sites collect registration information, count the number of site visits, track each mouse click, and often compile the data into a customer profile, Turow said. They use this data to help sell advertising and to sell products directly to teens. They also sell the data to marketers as research.

“They can slot you in categories that you may or may not want to be in,” Turow said, because companies use these customer profiles to determine to whom they should send coupons, discounts, and advertising.

According to the Annenberg study, 96 percent of parents and 79 percent of teen-agers interviewed believe teens should have to get their parents’ permission before giving out information online. But 45 percent of kids said they’d still give out personal information in exchange for free stuff.

In April, the Federal Trade Commission began enforcing the 1998 Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), a federal ban on collecting personal information from children without a parent’s permission. Lawmakers enacted the ban after federal officials found that companies asked children all kinds of questions while they played video games online or researched homework. Just 1 percent of sites asked for parental permission.

The COPPA ban applies only to children under the age of 13. But the Annenberg study found children between the ages of 13 and 17 are more likely to tell private information about their parents in exchange for free merchandise than are 10- to 12-year-olds.

Thirty-nine percent of children aged 13 to 17 admitted giving web sites personal information, compared with 16 percent of those between 10 and 12.

“We reject the notion that teens should be approachable by web sites as if they are fully responsible and independent adults in need of no parental supervision,” Turow said.

Schools, libraries, and federal laws are addressing the issue of privacy on the internet, but parents also must understand and take responsibility, Turow said.

“Parents have to sit down with their kids and articulate their own sense of privacy,” he said. Many parents and children claim to have had these discussions at home, but the Annenberg study found discrepancies.

“Although more than 60 percent of parents and kids surveyed said they had discussions about how to deal with web information requests, we found in our pairs that most parents and kids didn’t agree on whether these sorts of discussions had ever taken place,” Turow said.

The survey also found:

• 89 percent of parents say internet access helps their children with schoolwork.

• 85 percent of parents say the internet helps their children discover things they’ve never heard of before.

• Three-quarters of the parents surveyed think children who do not have access to the internet are at a disadvantage.

For this study, researchers conducted telephone interviews with 1,001 parents and 304 children between the ages of 10 and 17.

The Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania

Federal Trade Commission