Letting children under the age of 13 have a Facebook account is tantamount to “giving a ten-year-old a packet of cigarettes” an expert in child protection and parenting warned.
David Niven, a social worker who has worked with Scotland Yard investigating paedophile rings, said social work professionals must be as every bit as vigilant towards children at risk of online abuse as other forms of abuse or neglect within homes.
Facebook currently requires users to be aged 13 or over, but no proof of identity is required to set up an account.
Speaking at BASW’s England Annual Conference on safeguarding vulnerable adults and children, Mr Niven said: “I put a conference on a year ago and we invited the head of Facebook UK to give a presentation about child safety in social media. He gave a startling statistic: There are 82 million false Facebook accounts. A significant chunk of them are for child abuse, to encourage people to quietly, secretly gather information.
“At the same time he said he knew of thousands, if not tens of thousands, of parents in the UK who have falsified their child’s age in order to get them a Facebook account.
‘Personally, I feel that is the equivalent of giving a ten-year-old a packet of cigarettes or asking them to play football on a highway. I just think that is child abuse. It is neglect by omission.”
An NSPCC study found that one in four 11 and 12-year-olds in the UK had an upsetting experience online last year.
Nearly a quarter of them (22%) said the incident was from a “complete stranger or an adult they met online. Almost half (47%) had an online profile on a site with a minimum age of 13.
Mr Niven, a social work consultant with more than 30 years experience in social welfare, called for proof of identity to be made compulsory before a Facebook account is allowed.
He said: “Why can’t Facebook fund a presence in every school for half a day or a day a week and before you get an account you have to have that person verify the child is 13?
“We do it [require proof of identity] for alcohol, cigarettes, driving, having sex, marriage, joining the army and voting, but we don’t do it for something that is so blatantly dangerous as letting a young child have their own Facebook account.”
Mr Niven added: “Part of our job and responsibility as social workers is to make sure that on the agenda of our home visits and of working with families is social media safety.
“You should come down as hard as you would if you saw physical abuse or neglect or the other issues that cause harm to children. It is just a matter of getting this higher up the agenda in terms of our advice to families.”