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Social network sites must ensure that children's profiles are visible only to the child's friends and cannot be found on a search engine, the European Commission has said.

The Commission adopted its stance after a survey (13-page/198KB PDF) found that an increasing number of children were flouting social network age limits to set up their accounts. The survey was funded by the Commission and published by the EU Kids Online network.

EU Kids Online quizzed 25,000 young people across Europe and found that 38 per cent of children aged between nine and 12 have a social network profile. The figure was 77 per cent for children aged between 13 and 16. Most social networks ban children under the age of 13 from having profiles.

"Growing numbers of children are on social networking sites but many are not taking all necessary steps to protect themselves online. These children are placing themselves in harm's way, vulnerable to stalkers and groomers," Neelie Kroes, Vice President of the European Commission for the Digital Agenda said.

"All social networking companies should ... immediately make minors' profiles accessible by default only to their approved list of contacts and out of search engines' reach. And those companies that have not yet signed up to the EU's Safer Networking Principles should do so without delay so as to ensure our children's safety," Kroes said.

The Safer Social Networking Principles (19-page/901KB PDF) are self-regulatory guidelines that social network companies can adopt to meet EU safety standards for protecting minors.

Under the Safer Social Networking Principles, companies agree to provide clear, targeted guidance to allow children to navigate their services safely.

They also agree to limit exposure that children have to age-appropriate content and delete underage users from their service. The companies must also give users the tools to adapt privacy settings, block unwanted contact and report inappropriate content, the Safer Social Networking Principles say.

In 2009, 17 major web firms signed up to adopt the guidelines. The Commission shortly plans to publish an evaluation of how successful the guidelines have been implemented by some of those companies that adopted them.

The EU Kids Online survey found that the number of children using social network sites is growing, with many children falsifying their age to meet age limits on the sites.

"Many providers try to restrict their users to 13-year-olds and above but we can see that this is not effective," one of the report authors, Professor Sonia Livingstone from the London School of Economics and Political Science, said.

The survey also found that 27 per cent of children aged between nine and 16 make their social network profiles open to the public to view. Children aged between nine and 12 were no more likely to restrict access to their profiles than the teenagers surveyed, the report said.

"Children are rather more, not less, likely to post personal information when their profiles are public rather than private or partially private. One fifth of children whose profile is public display their address and/or phone number, twice as many as for those with private profiles. It cannot be determined here whether this is deliberate or is because some children struggle to manage the privacy features of their SNS," the EU Kids Online survey report said.

"Around half of the children who use SNS say that they have included at least one of these three things on their SNS profile; their address, their phone number or the name of their school. By far the most common is the name of their school," the report said.

The report also highlighted the problems children face in changing their privacy settings on SNS.

"Just over half of the 11-12 year olds rising to over three quarters of the 15-16 year olds know how to change the privacy settings on their profile. Children’s ability to manage privacy settings vary somewhat by SNS, suggesting differences in design, none of the SNS stands out as particularly successful in providing settings that children can manage," the report said.

"Given its popularity, it is of concern that almost half of the younger Facebook users, and a quarter of the older Facebook users say they are not able to change their privacy settings. Since not all children can manage privacy settings, it is possible that those whose profiles are set to ‘public’ have not done so on purpose," the report said.

The European Commission's reaction to the survey comes on the same day that Ofcom, the UK's media regulator, reported that children's online activity has increased in the past year.

Ofcom conducted a media literacy survey (107-page/500KB PDF) and found that nearly half of parents think their children, aged between five and 15, know more about the internet than they do.

The survey also found that 41 per cent of parents said their children aged between 12 and 15 have access to the internet in their bedroom, which is a rise from 31 per cent in 2009.

Copyright © 2011, OUT-LAW.com

OUT-LAW.COM is part of international law firm Pinsent Masons.

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