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Younger children and social networking sites: a blind spot

At around 11 years old, most children in the UK leave behind the familiarity of their local primary school and begin travelling to a much larger secondary school with many new faces and many new pressures, social and personal as well as educational. To speed up the process of adjustment, to find new friends quickly and to ensure they are accepted by their peers, around half join social networking sites even though they are below the age intended or catered to by those sites. As the NSPCC’s timely report reveals, the consequences can be troubling, with an estimated one in four 11 and 12 year olds having been upset on a social networking site.

This report raises an equally timely question, what should be done? Facebook (the most commonly used site) protects those who declare themselves under 18, but to avoid the difficulty of gaining parental consent for those under 13 (required by the USA’s Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act), they assume no under 13s have a profile. As a result, many young children spend time in an environment designed for older teens and adults. If they must have claimed an age over 18 to access the site, their profiles could be public and fully searchable by anyone.

Should social networking sites work harder to prevent under 13s using their service? Or, should they institute a reliable procedure to gain parental permission

for younger children so they can meet their needs properly? Or, instead, should they leave things as they are, letting children learn to deal with what life brings? I hope this report stimulates an informed discussion among public policy makers and private companies in the best interests of children.

There are already many pressures on children and parents. For the most part, social networking sites – and the internet more generally – represent a fantastic opportunity for children to make friends, share humour and interests, and learn to stretch their wings. But online as offline, society needs to let them do this at their own pace, in environments that respect privacy and safety as long as those are needed, and with reliable back-up systems in case things go wrong.

For the past few years, we have watched as most young people have converged on Facebook. But now, just as adults are acquiring their own profiles, young people are turning elsewhere – to Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram and, more worryingly, to unregulated sites which provide few or no protections for children. This raises further public policy challenges, as the NSPCC report also emphasises. Serious consideration to the recommendations with which this report ends is, therefore, urgently needed.