ROME (Reuters) - Italy is the dream destination of exchange students, but student photos of drunken antics exposed by media coverage of a British girl's murder last month have cast a sobering light on their lifestyle.
After the murder of Meredith Kercher in the university town of Perugia, where she was on a European Union exchange program called Erasmus, the media discovered a trove of material posted by Perugia students and friends on the Web.
Erasmus already had a reputation for cross-border partying but the photos on the Web sites Facebook, Youtube and Myspace cast it in a bad light and even helped to incriminate the victims' friends, three of whom are now suspects in the case.
That has made some other students with no connection to the Perugia case think twice about social networking sites.
"The way the Italian media pored over the Perugia suspects' Facebook and Myspace pages certainly has made me more aware of how I could be judged," said 24-year-old American student Sam Cohan, who has lived in Rome for two years.
Drinking and partying by university students is hardly new but Internet networking sites mean their antics are now in the public eye for all to see -- and judge.
The media have latched on to the trend. A Youtube video of Finnish schoolboy Pekka-Eric Auvinen showed him brandishing guns before he shot nine people in November.
In the Perugia case, images and information taken from these sites has filled the void of verifiable facts. Kercher was described by friends as "studious and shy" but that did not stop papers from publishing photos of her with the headline "Flirt."
One suspect, Italian Raffaele Sollecito, posed brandishing a knife in Halloween pictures found on the Internet and Ivorian Rudy Hermann Guede, arrested on the run in Germany, was shown peeling back his eyelids and impersonating a zombie.
But it is Youtube video and Myspace pictures of American suspect Amanda Knox, a 20-year-old student, that have drawn most attention, attracting both fan mail and abusive messages telling her to "rot in hell." Her Myspace page has since been closed.
Media have used material from the sites to illustrate speculative stories about students in Perugia, their sex lives and alleged drug use, including Italy's Corriere della Sera newspaper which dubbed Perugia "the new Ibiza" after the Spanish island renowned for its nightlife.
Even before the Perugia murder, foreign students had been blamed for a new boozing culture among young Italians who until recently tended to follow Italy's moderate drinking habits rather than northern European and U.S. "binge-drinking."
Now Italy has a growing problem with alcohol -- with moderate consumption of wine over meals giving way to more widespread hard drinking.
More than 56,000 Italians are being treated for alcoholism compared with 19,000 in 1996; drinking among people in their early 20s has risen 58 percent in the past seven years.
"Cultural diversity is one thing, but this is not diversity -- it's an invasion," says Paolo Mule, a 25-year-old student from Rome, who has himself studied abroad but says he "made a real effort to learn the language and understand the culture."
One possible explanation is that more Italians are going to university now than before and, like their foreign peers, experimenting with their new-found freedom.
"As an American, I understand that I come from a completely different drinking culture," said Cohan. "Advertising and films almost encourage American college students to binge-drink -- we feel justified in being young and drunk."
"But where 'imported drinking culture' is concerned, the problem doesn't just lie with Americans," he said.
Erasmus students do not help their own image, forming groups on Web sites with titles like "I'm not an alcoholic, I'm just an Erasmus student."
Natalie Pela, a student from Bristol University in Britain who is studying in Verona, believes the generalization is unfair on many of the 15,000 Erasmus students coming to Italy each year -- one-tenth of the whole program in 31 countries.
"Italians assume the drinking craze is our fault," she said. "It's important to remember that for many who are alone and away from home, drinking creates easy opportunities to make friends. It's possible to integrate into the local culture as well."
For some Italians, that is still a headache. In the Rome quarters of Trastevere and Campo dei Fiori, residents' groups are battling to stop the spread of late-night bars offering cheap drinks to lure in foreign students.
Editing by Stephen Brown and Sara Ledwith