Study reveals the UK’s ‘under-age’ social networking generation

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Younger children are increasingly setting up their own pages on social networking sites such as Facebook, finds a new study.

The report, Social Networking, Age and Privacy, reveals that one in three of 9-12-year-olds in the UK has a profile on Facebook, even though the network sets a minimum age of 13 to join. In total, 43 per cent of this age group in Britain has a profile on at least one social networking site, rising to 88 per cent among 13-16-year-olds.

Researchers who carried out the EU Kids Online survey of 25,000 young people across Europe say it also shows that age restrictions are only partially effective and that a growing number of children are taking online risks.

A quarter of 9-16 year olds on social networking sites acrosss Europe have their profile set to ‘public’. One fifth of children whose profile is public display their address and/or phone number, twice as many as for those with private profiles. However, children in the UK tended to be more careful – only 10 per cent have their profiles set to ‘public.’

Professor Sonia Livingstone from the London School of Economics and Political Science, who directs the project, said: ‘It seems clear that children are moving to Facebook – this is now the most popular site in 17 of the 25 countries we surveyed – and the UK is fairly typical. Many providers try to restrict their users to 13-year-olds and above but we can see that this is not effective.’ Especially younger children are less likely to use privacy options and to understand the safety features that are available.

Across the 25 European countries surveyed, 57 per cent of children (aged 9 to 16) use Facebook as their sole or main social networking site. This ranges from 98 per cent in Cyprus, to only two per cent in Poland.

The findings raise the possibility that removing age restrictions from social network sites might be the most effective way of improving online safety. Elisabeth Staksrud, from the University of Oslo and one of the report’s authors comments that: “since children often lie about their age to join ‘forbidden’ sites it would be more practical to identify younger users and to target them with protective measures. However we accept that abolishing age limits could lead to a substantial rise in the numbers using the sites.”

Among other findings, the survey shows that almost one in six 9-12-year-olds (though one in three in the UK), and one in three 13-16s (rising to half of UK teens), has 100 or more online contacts. Around a quarter of SNS users communicate online with people who have no connection to their offline lives, including one fifth of 9-12 year olds across all SNS (and one quarter of younger Facebook users across Europe).

The report also shows that:

  • Parental rules for SNS use, when applied, are partly effective, especially for younger children.
  • One fifth of children whose profile is public display their address and/or phone number, twice as many as for those with private profiles.
  • The features designed to protect children from other users if needed are not easily understood, by many younger and some older children.

The full report, Social Networking, Age and Privacy, is available online at
http://www2.lse.ac.uk/media@lse/research/EUKidsOnline/ShortSNS.pdf

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