Tweens flock to social networks
4/20/2011 2:47:00 PM
Recent surveys on both sides of the Atlantic have confirmed the alarming fact that tweens (10 to 12-year-olds) and even younger children are flocking to social networks in unprecedented numbers.
First, an Ipsos Public Affairs study conducted late last year in the U.S. showed that fully 50 percent of 12-year-olds with access to the Internet now have their own Facebook account. And this week, a European study confirmed a similar trend overseas when it revealed that 38 percent of 9 to 12 year olds in the EU have a social networking profile.
Up until now, official numbers have been hard to come by, as the majority of social networks in the U.S. block under-13s at the time they try to register. This means that the child has to lie about his or her age and the account gets swept into the teen demographic when the social network provides a breakdown by age.
Although observers have long suspected that many tweens and younger users were included in the teen bracket, it’s only now that the extent of the problem is beginning to emerge.
And it is a problem. The European study also revealed that fully one quarter of the 25,000 children and teens covered by the survey had their social networking profile set to “public”, meaning anyone could access their information, which often included personal details such as home address, school and phone number.
Only 56 percent of 9 to 12-year-olds knew how to change their privacy settings, suggesting that millions of social networking accounts are being set up without parental consent or knowledgeable input. This was confirmed by the fact that younger children were more likely to have a public profile than older children in 15 out of the 25 EU countries.
Although Facebook is aware of the problem of underage users – a recent report out of Australia suggested that Facebook was removing 20,000 under-age accounts a day – there is little consensus on what to do about it. Few people agree that lowering the age limit on Facebook and other social networks is a good idea, and it’s virtually impossible for the networks themselves to install additional procedures that will detect underage accounts. (Nearly all the requests to close underage accounts come from parents, who learn about their kids’ accounts after they have been set up.)
One suggestion is to make profiles of all children under the age of 18 accessible by default only to their immediate contacts or “friends”, although many would argue that that punishes the majority for the actions of individuals who shouldn’t be using social networks anyway.
Of course, the best policy is for parents to address the issue before it becomes a problem. It’s no longer safe to wait until your child is 12 or 13 before you have the Facebook talk. Whether you decide to open an account together, wait another year, or lay down the law, make sure your child knows where you stand and will abide by your decision. The alternative is to let them go it alone.