The rules are laid out very clearly in Facebook’s policy: "If you are under age 13 please do not attempt to register for Facebook." So it’s simple: unless you are 13 this social networking site is not for you.
But ask any parent of an 11 or 12 year old if their child is on Facebook, or has asked to be on Facebook, and you’ll find the majority are either already on it or want to be.
Parents who are trying to stick to the rules and keep their child off Facebook until they are officially old enough will be swimming against the tide.
And though Facebook’s policy states it will "delete information as quickly as possible" if it learns that the child is under 13, in reality it does no policing of its age policy. There is no age verification mechanism except asking the user what age they are, and so the rule is widely flouted and many parents are happily complicit in this.
In fact, a recent European survey found that 38% of 9 – 12 year olds have a social networking site profile. This increases to 77% among 13 – 16 year olds.
But does this really matter? This generation are the first to grow up with social networking as an integral part of their childhood. While adults come to Facebook conscious of old-world privacy rules and trying to apply them to the digital world, youngsters don’t.
Indeed, a quarter of children using social networks in the EU have their profile set to public — meaning anyone can see their profile, which often includes their phone number and address — according to survey by the European Commission. It is currently reviewing its Safer Social Networking Principles strategy.
The fear is that by not protecting their information sufficiently, children are at risk of stalkers and sexual predators. The Commission wants the default setting on these sites to be limited to a child’s friends and agreed contacts.
But cyber-stalking and predators very much sit at the extreme end of the risk associated with social networking.
Much more prevalent, and something that ought to be of greater concern to parents, is cyber-bullying.
As many as one in five young people have suffered from cyber-bullying in the UK, according to research by academics at Anglia Ruskin University.
Cyber-bullying is a relatively new problem, and includes internet or mobile phone messages and images being used to harass or embarrass another person.
It affects girls more than boys - 69% of those saying they had been bullied in the survey were girls - and the consequences can be devastating, including a lack of confidence, self-esteem issues and damage to their emotional and mental well-being.
It has not been unheard of children committing suicide because of the stress caused by cyber-bullying.
The most common way children deal with bullying is by changing or blocking their instant messenger, email address and mobile phone numbers, as well as being more careful about disclosing their personal details.
Steven Walker, principal lecturer in child and adolescent mental health at Anglia Ruskin, says: “As the use of social media among young people continues to grow, unless properly addressed by host sites and government agencies, the problem of cyber-bullying is only likely to get worse.”
As a parent, you should have a frank discussion with your child about the dangers they face online.
If they are going to join Facebook, or are already members, remind them to avoid posting personal details online, only befriend children they know well and always tell you if someone or something makes them feel uncomfortable.
More information on the safe use of social networking sites:
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