As far as Kyle Stoneman is concerned, the campus police were the ones who started the Facebook wars.

“We were just being, well, college students, and they used it against us,” says Stoneman, a senior at George Washington University in Washington.

He is convinced that the campus security force got wind of a party he and some buddies were planning last year by monitoring, the phenomenally popular college networking site. The officers waited till the shindig was in full swing, Stoneman grouses, then shut it down on discovering under-age drinking.

Stoneman and his friends decided to fight back. Their weapon of choice? Facebook, of course.

Once again they used the site, which is visited by more than 80 percent of the student body, to chat up a beer blast. But this time, when the campus police showed up, they found 40 students and a table of cake and cookies, all decorated with the word “beer.”

“We even set up a cake-pong table,” a twist on the beer-pong drinking game, he says. “The look on the faces of the cops was priceless.” As the coup de grace, he posted photographs of the party on Facebook, including a portrait of one nonplussed officer.

A university spokesman, Tracy Schario, insists that noise complaints, not nosing around Facebook, led the police to both parties. But, she says, “it’s sort of an inevitability that if a party is talked about on the site, word of it will reach the enforcement people, who then have no choice but to investigate.” In fact, two campus police officers and the chief’s assistant are among the 14,000 Facebook members at George Washington.

The stunt could be read as a sign that Facebook has become more than a way for young people to stay in touch. Started in 2004 by Harvard students who wanted to animate the black-and-white thumbnail photos of freshman directories, the site is the ninth most visited on the Internet, according to Nielsen/Net Ratings, and is used by nearly 5 million college students. Facebook is available at most of the country’s four-year colleges, and many two-year colleges, too.

Because of its popularity, though, the site has become a flashpoint for debates about free speech, privacy and whether the Internet should be a tool for surveillance. It has also raised concerns from parents, administrators and even students about online “addiction.”

“There are people on this campus who are totally obsessed with it, who check their profile five, six, 20 times a day,” says Ingrid Gallagher, a sophomore at the University of Michigan. “But I think that more and more people are realizing that it also has a dark side.”

Her estimates are not far off. Nearly three-quarters of Facebook users sign on at least once every 24 hours, and the average users sign on six times a day, says Chris Hughes, a spokesman for the site.

Using it is simple: Students create online profiles, which they can stock with personal details like sexual preferences, favorite movies and phone contact numbers, with links to photo albums and diaries. The details listed are by no means reliable; it’s common, under “personal relationships,” to list a spouse as a joke (as does Stoneman). Like most networking sites, Facebook enables users to compile lists of friends whose names and photos are displayed, and to post public comments on other people’s profiles.

One of the most attractive features to many students is that they can track down friends from high school at other colleges. Users can also join or form groups with names that run from the prosaic (“Campus Republicans”) to the prurient (“We Need to Have Sex in Widener Before We Graduate”) and the dadaesque (“I Am Fond of Biscuits and Scones”). Unlike general networking sites like Friendster and, which let anyone join, Facebook and, which was started last year by a student at Williams, are confined to the insular world of the campus, which Internet experts say is the key to their success. Last fall, Facebook opened a parallel site for high school students. To sign up, a high school student has to be referred by a college student who is a Facebook user.

Facebook’s charms are obvious even to administrators.

“It’s a fantastic tool for building community,” says Anita Farrington-Brathwaite, assistant dean for freshmen at New York University.

“In a school like ours that doesn’t have an enclosed campus, it really gives people a way to find each other and connect.’ Harvard’s president, Lawrence H. Summers, gave kudos to Facebook in the opening lines of his address to freshmen in September, saying he had been browsing the site to get to know everyone.

But concerns have flourished with Facebook’s popularity. Despite safeguards placed on access – only those with valid university e-mail addresses, ending in .edu, can register as users, and students can bar specific people from viewing their profiles – administrators and parents worry about cyberstalking.

Robin Raskin, a technology consultant whose three children are in college and use Facebook, says students should be cautious about putting personal information on the site.

“There’s something about all that ivy climbing up those walls that makes kids feel they’re safe, but anybody can get in there who wants to," Raskin says.

It’s not just parents who are uneasy.

“Every girl I know has had some sort of weird experience,” says Shanna Andus, a freshman at the University of California, Berkeley.

“Someone gets on a ‘friend list’ of one of your friends and starts to contact you. They met you at a party or checked out your picture online or went to high school with someone you barely know. It’s just a little creepy.”

Some colleges have taken action: in October, the University of New Mexico banned access to Facebook on its campus system, citing numerous concerns, including student privacy. Campus officials say they will restore the service for this semester. Hughes, the Facebook spokesman, says that when the site could not be accessed via the university’s networks, half the users continued to sign on through outside networks.

Hughes defends the site’s privacy safeguards, insisting that it rarely receives reports of stalking or other harassment, and that complaints usually require only a readjustment of a user’s privacy settings and a warning message sent to the person accused of inappropriate behavior.

But parents and administrators have another worry: that potential employers are wangling themselves e-mail addresses ending with .edu – perhaps someone in the office was given one by his alma mater or has signed up for an extension course at a college with Facebook access – so that they can vet job applicants. Administrators at both NYU and Brandeis say on-campus employers use the site for just that purpose. Aware that many students post pictures and descriptions of their X-rated, booze-soaked exploits, administrators at Tufts and Texas Christian University began offering seminars in Facebook propriety last year.

Students themselves seem split on the issue of Facebook exposure: Some are outraged that their youthful indiscretions may be used against them; others seem resigned to privacy being a fantasy in the age of the Internet. In a case that was reported in The Boston Globe last year and that many students cite as a cautionary tale, a Brandeis student included her “appreciation of the festive greens” in her profile, a not-so-subtle allusion to marijuana that got to her parents and became the buzz at her grandmother’s retirement home.

“The way I look at it is that in the future with the growing nature of information transparency, having embarrassing pictures out there will be the norm,” says Stoneman, a political communications major who has a job lined up with a consulting firm that specializes in online campaign fund-raising.

“Sure, five years down the line it might hurt me, but 10 or 15 years, I don't think it will matter.”

But, as Stoneman's beer party hoax suggests, he and his peers may not be as sanguine about how some colleges are using Facebook to police the student body or at least influence it. As part of freshman orientation at Rollins College in Florida, student coordinators will create Facebook groups for campus organizations like the Rollins Outdoor Club.

“We cannot deny the impact of Facebook, but we believe that it’s the responsibility of the institution to find ways to create the most positive communities,” says Roger Casey, dean of faculty.

“These communities can be positive or negative.”

Other colleges are even more aggressive. A student at Fisher College in Boston was expelled last year for his online criticism of a campus security officer. Officials at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said they would discipline students living on campus who posted information or photographs on their profiles that involved illegal activity like under-age drinking. At North Carolina State, residential advisers, the upperclassmen who oversee dorm life, wrote up 15 students seen consuming alcohol in photos on Facebook; it caused an uproar and resulted in a town-hall-style meeting.

Campus officials are not the only ones trawling for miscreants: The Secret Service investigated a student at the University of Oklahoma who posted a comment on Facebook about assassinating the president.

Farrington-Brathwaite acknowledges that the privacy issues presented by Facebook create challenges for administrators, even at liberal institutions like NYU which she says has not used the site to patrol student behavior. While several hundred professors and deans across the country have added their own profiles as a way to reach out to students – a development that, arguably, has lowered Facebook’s cool quotient – she does not plan to do so.

“I wouldn’t want to come upon something that I felt was inappropriate,” she says, “so I just choose not to get involved.”

But Farrington-Brathwaite encourages resident advisers to come to her if they spot a Facebook cry for help, like an allusion to suicide. NYU has experienced a spate of student suicides in recent years.

“Still, it’s a difficult balancing act, preserving student privacy and freedom, yet not sticking our head in the sand,” she says.

With the abundance of groups that treat almost everything with irreverence, Facebook has also inflamed racial conflicts. At Indiana University and the University of Virginia, two Facebook groups recently caused fracases by poking fun at Asian students, who make up a large part of their student bodies. Students created dueling groups, and Asian organizations made the conflict a cause celebre.

Hughes says the site does not censor content but tries to deal directly with offensive or inflammatory postings if there are complaints. At both campuses, students removed the groups of their own accord after administrators brought complaints to their attention.

“We see Facebook as a land mine,” says Daisy Rodriguez, assistant dean of students at UVA., “but we understand we have no authority over it. So our policy is to meet with students who may post things that people find offensive and talk about the issues and consequences. Then we hope for the best.”

Stoneman of George Washington considers such an attitude enlightened – and realistic.

“Facebook is part of an evolving dialogue,” he says. “One of the things that’s most fascinating about it is how it illuminates the changing nature of public and private identity. This is new ground on every level. What people in positions of power have to realize is that people my age have a completely different attitude about what is fair game.”