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Children using laptop computers

According to Metro:

"A million children under 12 use Facebook"

Are you surprised?

I'm not!

I suggest you read through the article first which will provide the background for what I'm suggesting below.

At home

Firstly I'd like to state that my eldest child is only 6 years old and she does not have a username for Facebook (the article talks about 7+ so she's not quite there yet anyway). She does have her own laptop (running Linux) and accesses the Internet on a regular basis. This includes her school homework (the school requires pupils to go online to complete some homework), to access games and educational websites and to watch Internet TV (eg IPlayer).

I do use Facebook and as with many parents that use Facebook there are lots of photos and comments about my children both on my profile and those of friends and relatives.

My daughter knows that I use Facebook and I have shown her my Facebook account, including looking at photos and seeing information about herself, her friends and relatives and other people, but I do not allow her to see / use my Facebook account when I am not present.

I do not believe that Facebook as it is currently setup is a suitable place for younger children, but perhaps it could be?

What's the current situation

According to my daughter's school "It is illegal for anyone under 13 to have a Facebook page*".

I personally think this is wrong, even when you ignore the error of referring to a Facebook Page (see below).

Whilst I'm no legal expert I'm not aware of any UK law forbidding minors from having an account for a social networking website. They may be breaking the terms of use for the website, but I hardly think that a child would be prosecuted for Fraud because they are pretending to be older than they are.

The Facebook Terms and conditions state: "You will not use Facebook if you are under 13."

The way that Facebook very much puts the responsibility onto the individual for what they do and don't want to share. I think that Facebook (or another social network site) could have a separate section or set-up that could make it safer for younger children.

But young children are using Facebook

The fact that young children are still using Facebook shows that a blanket ban on under 13s does not work. I think that's a common thing with life that a minimum age does not deter anyone from wanting to join earlier, and peer pressure will always exist. I'm sure that if Facebook was around when I was under 13 and I could have got an account by pretending to be older then I probably would have.

The problem is that once these young children get an account by pretending to be older than they are and are then treated the same as teenagers.

So how could it be done differently?

Rather than just shutting these children out then there could instead be a social network site where young children can safely interact with friends. This could be achieved by active monitoring of the accounts to ensure that children are using the site correctly and to ensure that they don't do anything that puts them at risk.

This would be prohibitively expensive for the social network site to monitor using paid staff, but by provide the ability for parents and guardians to have better controls over what their child can do could be policed directly by parents / guardians.

Today many parents do already monitor their children (eg. teenagers) on facebook. The Facebook Help your teens stay safe page suggests that parents work with their children to set appropriate rules. Parents on Facebook are often friends of their teenage children so that they can see any public posts (but that does not allow the parent to see any direct communications).

But I think that it would be better for those under 13 to have a profile that their parent can fully monitor and where a parent can control which "friends" they have on facebook (or other social media site).

The child would need to have their parent set-up their account for them and could place restrictions on what the child could do without first getting electronic approval from their parent.

It could include automatic filters that provide direct SMS notification to parents when their child does something that is considered a safety risk - allowing parents to respond directly in helping to keep their children safe.

This would also help these children understand more about how to use the social network sites in a safer way so that when they became teenagers they would be better prepared for how to deal with unsupervised access to social networking.

What about parents that didn't monitor their child?

I think that the emphasis is very much down to the parent to talk with their child to work out the appropriate level of protection and monitoring. If the parent does not want to monitor the child then that is down to them, but providing the tools and ability for a parent to oversee a child's account from a safety perspective would allow those that do want to.

But what about now?

This is all my own thoughts about how the system could be improved to make it safer for younger children. I don't think that it is appropriate for those under 13 to join Facebook or other social networking sites as it is setup today, but in reality I know that they will.

For now it's down to parents to emphasis the risks and to work with their children to create guidelines as to how they use the Internet. I also think schools can help a lot, which in some areas of child Internet safety they do well, but I think in other ways they appear to be out of touch.

There are some useful links below where you can find out more about Internet safety.

More on Internet Safety

The following links are a good starting point for anyone concerned about Internet safety and young people.

Note: *

The reference to Facebook page in this context is incorrect. Facebook Pages "are for organizations, businesses, celebrities, and bands to broadcast great information in an official, public manner to people who choose to connect with them", but I believe that they mean a Facebook Account (otherwise known as a username or profile).