Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Ofcom Finds Kids "Sneaking Around Social Networking Sites"

From a recent Ofcom report, as reported by Bobbie Johnson at The Guardian, some unsurprising yet nonetheless somewhat troubling new findings about the number of kids that "sneak" around social networking sites aimed at teens and adults (and which prohibit children under 13/14 years). As Johnson writes:
Research into internet use has found that, among children with internet access, more than a quarter of eight to 11-year-olds claimed to have a profile page on a social networking website. This is despite nominal age restrictions aimed at preventing pre-teens from using such sites.

Although there are some networking sites aimed at children, most of those frequented by under-11s are targeted at teenagers and adult internet users. Since this could mean a significant number of Britain's 11.5 million children may be seeing inappropriate material, Ofcom said the findings caused concern.

"There are huge benefits to internet use, and we don't want to be too scared about the dangers," said Robin Blake, the head of media literacy at Ofcom.

"But parents who are allowing their children to go online without supervision need to recognise their children are potentially at risk."

Although social-networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook say their users should be over 13 or 14 years of age (depending on the site) to create accounts and participate in their sites, but rely on truthful self-reporting when it comes to the implementation of such age restrictions. Little is in place to ensure that children, while officially "banned" from the sites, aren't actually participating under the guise of an older user. With all the data that these sites tend to collect from users - connecting in-site information to larger Internet use patterns - you would think there would be a pretty easy way to red flag certain users/computers as potentially underage. Anyway, the article goes on to describe how the current "system" relies on parental monitoring, a method which is often less effective than society (and even parents) seems to think.
[The report] outlined a disparity between the perception of social networking among adults and children. While 65% of parents said they set rules for the way their children used social networking sites, only half of children said their families had laid down restrictions. A further 43% said their parents placed no limits on what they could use sites for.

Keep your eyes open for an upcoming new study by Rebekah Willett at the the London Knowledge Lab. She's been studying young people's use of social networking sites, risky behaviours and subversive play, and will provide some much needed insight into what these trends mean for (and within) kid and teen cultures.

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