Daniel McKeown checks out a report into the 'thorny problem' of young social networkers
One in five European 9 to 12-year-olds have a Facebook profile, according to EU Kids Online, a project run by the London School of Economics (LSE), prompting policy discussions at the European Union, a sponsor of the project.
The minimum age for using Facebook is 13, according to the site's terms and conditions. However, the large number of under-age users indicates that current checks are ineffective.
According to EU Kids Online, 59 per cent of 9 to 16-year-olds have a social networking profile on Facebook and other services. This includes 26 per cent of 9 to10-year-olds, 49 per cent of 11 to 12-year-olds, 73 per cent of those aged 13-14 and 82 per cent of 15 to 16-year-olds. A total of 25,142 children who use the internet (across 25 European countries) were interviewed, as was one of their parents, during spring/summer 2010.
“We don't often see a piece of information that produces a policy discussion so quickly,” says Dr Leslie Haddon, one of the project co-ordinators.
The information in the project is based on a Europe-wide survey of children's activities and experiences of the internet. The project distinguishes between 'risky' and 'harmful' activities, indicating that with risk comes opportunity and warning against heavy-handed safety measures, such as banning internet use.
“It's a balancing act,” Dr Haddon says. “For example, I could keep my kid in because there's a risk of him getting run over, but then there's the risk that he misses out on activities, gets overweight and develops diabetes.
“The attitude in the press tends to be: "If it's risky, isn't it bad?" but the people who do more things that we think are positive, that have more activities, we feel that they are getting more benefits from going online.
“They tend to be the ones who are more likely to encounter risks but they are not the ones who are upset by their experiences.”
Many young networkers do not enable privacy settings, leaving themselves vulnerable
One concern is that many under-age users do not have privacy settings enabled on their social networking accounts, leaving their profile information, including contact details, available for anyone to view.
The project literature regards under-age social networking as 'a thorny problem', and says: “If companies removed age restrictions, they would be better able to identify younger users and target appropriate protective measures. This could include upgrading control features, user tools and safety information.”
The project findings also reveal more children are now going online in their bedrooms, rather than in living rooms, meaning the traditional safety model of a parent peering over their youngster's shoulder is redundant.
'Harmful' experiences of survey respondents included accidentally being exposed to sexual imagery and getting computer viruses.
EU Kids Online
Download the "Final recommendations for policy, methodology and research" by Brian O’Neill, Sonia Livingstone, Sharon McLaughlin.