Introduction

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Children are inherently social creatures. Take one look at a playground and you'll see young kids interacting with one another, practicing their social skills, and learning the lay of the land. So, it's only natural that children would want to follow the popular trend of joining an online social network…right? After all, their friends are doing it.

In this article, we will explore social networking websites and how children below the required age to join are able to open accounts. We will also discuss the social networking dangers and positive effects of social networks on young children and offer helpful tips for parents who wish to guide their kids towards a safe direction.

Social Networks and Age Policies

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Facebook and MySpace have clear age policies posted on their websites. So, how is it possible that so many kids under the required age are able to start accounts?

According to Pew Research Center, "More than half (55%) of online American youths ages 12-17 use online social networking sites."[15] In the United Kingdom, 25% of children ages 8-12 have a profile page set up on Facebook, Bebo or MySpace in spite of the clear age restrictions. [16]

Upon close examination of those numbers, one can only assume that peer pressure is a significant factor, and for the twelve-year-olds in question– either the parents are lying about their child's age, or the kids themselves are fibbing.

Possible Harmful Effects

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Of course, we can all think of a few harmful effects that social networking sites may have on individuals, but let's take a moment to review how these sites may adversely affect our kids.

· Privacy- Young children are more likely to post personal information than older kids, and they don't fully understand the possible severity and consequences of posting inappropriate photographs or videos. [3]

· Exposure to inappropriate content- According to Norton, the keyword "sex" was the 4th top searched word in 2009 for tweens ages 8-12, and "porn" the top keyword for kids 7 and under. [11] Aside from search engines and foul language, tweens have the opportunity to come across inappropriate advertising or websites by clicking on links.

· Cyber-bullying- Tweens and children are not mature enough to withstand name-calling. In April, a New Jersey middle school principal named Anthony Orsini made national news over his plea to parents, asking them to remove their young children from Facebook. "They are simply not psychologically ready for the damage that one mean person online can cause," he told parents via email. Orsini's reasoning was based on several fights between students that originally began online. [5] This frightening trend is not limited to New Jersey and has cropped up in other states across the nation.

· Stranger danger- We've all heard the "stranger danger" saying, but the fact of the matter is that children are often threatened by people whom are actually familiar to them. That said, the Internet makes it quite easy for social networking perpetrators to pose as other people, or to leave anonymous messages. According to Pew Research Center, "32% of online teens have been contacted by someone with no connection to them or any of their friends, and 7% of online teens say they have felt scared or uncomfortable as a result of contact by an online stranger." [15]

· Cyber-Stalking- Something as innocent as posting a photograph can reveal a lot of information about your child including what their home looks like, what school they attend, or information about their friends. Cyber-stalkers and Social Networking Predators may even approach your child online and use seducing techniques to lure them into meeting face to face. Check out some effective social networking safety tips for parents on SafetyWeb's blog.

Brain Changes- Lady Susan Greenfield, a neuroscientist and professor of synaptic pharmacology at Lincoln College, Oxford, and director of the Royal Institution, has argued that children who use social networking sites may experience a lack of attention span, a need for immediacy for stimulation, and a "shaky sense of identity." [13] Then again, this is the same argument that naysayers made about the impact of television and entertainment over the past few decades. [10]

· It's Permanent!- Anything your child says or does online will leave a trace. Chances are, years from now, a potential employer or college will be able to do a search on your child and find his/her profile page. Read about how Facebook can kill your career on SafetyWeb's blog .

Positive Effects

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With all the criticism about kids using social networks, these types of sites can have positive effects on children as well. Social interaction of any kind provides lessons in both life and social skills, as they teach children how to build strong friendships and long-lasting relationships.

· Relationship Building & Cultural Awareness- Social networks enable children to meet new friends from distant lands, helping them become more worldly and sensitive to cultural differences. Kids can also stay in touch or reunite with friends from their past who may have moved away.

· Identity- Children can share their interests with others, join groups, experience a sense of independence [14], and engage in positive self-expression by personalizing profile pages and participating in discussions about topics that interest them. [9] This greatly facilitates the building of a child's sense of identity.

· Self-esteem- In correlation with identity building, social networks can help build self-esteem and boost confidence.

· Battling Depression- Danah Boyd, a Ph.D. candidate at the School of Information, University of California-Berkeley, and fellow at the Harvard University Berkman Center for Internet and Society recently told The New York Times that homosexual teens living in rural areas may use social networks to battle depression. "Thanks to such tools, many teens have chosen not to take the path of suicide, knowing that there are others like them." [18]

The use of blogging can also be very therapeutic. A 17-year-old named Tamaryn Stevens was diagnosed with kidney disease when she was 10 and underwent transplant surgery. She logs on to a social network called Livewire every day to chat with online friends, post her thoughts and even upload original poetry. She says Livewire is "hugely beneficial… Especially the days that you feel [down] in real social situations like school and things like that. You go home and you go into Livewire and there's people to talk to and it makes your day that much better." [19]

· Education- A 2008 study conducted by the University of Minnesota discovered that "students using social networking sites are actually practicing the kinds of 21st century skills we want them to develop to be successful today." Those skills include developing a positive attitude towards technology and sharing creative, original content. [17] Social networks can help educate kids in more formal academic areas like science, mathematics, history and more. [1]

How To Choose A Safe Social Network

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When choosing a safe social network for your child under the age of 13, it's important to evaluate its safety and privacy policies. Ask yourself the following 7 questions:

1. How can I keep my child safe?

2. How often does the website monitor content and communication?

3. Does the site have clear safety, security and privacy policies posted online?

4. Does the site have a TRUSTe Children's Privacy seal, an ESRB Privacy Online Program seal, or a VeriSign Secured seal visible?

5. Will my child be exposed to any inappropriate content in the form of advertising or links?

6. What will my child learn? [9]

7. Will I be notified of any dangerous activity?

Below is a list of safe social networks for children under the age of 13.

· Kidswirl- social network with interface similar to Facebook's

· Club Penguin- operated by Walt Disney Corporation, online gaming site

· Webkinz- a site that features virtual pet caring for kids

· Whyville- educational Internet site with games

· Kidzworld- a content-driven community for tweens

· Kidzui- a special web browser and filter to keep kids safe

· FaceChipz- a social network for kids created by parents

· Kidzrocket- a social network for pre-teens

What To Do If Your Child Joins a Social Network

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In a study called "Teens Surfing the Net: How Do They Learn To Protect Their Privacy?", researchers Deborah M Moscardelli and Catherine Liston-Heyes imply that "differences between adults and young people with regard to privacy may be due to lack of knowledge about privacy." Their study found that parents who monitor their child's Internet use, or those that surf the Internet with them, have teenagers with higher rates of concerns about privacy that those who do not. [20,21]

Here are some great steps to follow if your child (13+ years-old) joins a social networking Web site.

1. Discuss why they want to use a social network and what type of content they plan on adding.

2. Teach your child about online safety basics and what kind of personal information should be kept private. [8]

3. Check your child's privacy settings to restrict access and postings. Show your child how to use these settings and explain their significance. [8]

4. Promote honesty. Try setting a good example by not lying and discuss how lying can hurt relationships and trustworthiness. [2]

5. Discuss the harmful effects of social networks with your child. Be sure they understand what expectations you have for their online behavior and what consequences they will face (both in the household and in the outside world) should they stray away from those. Remind them to only say or do things online that they are comfortable with others seeing. [8]

6. Start your own account on the same websites and let your child know you're there. Tread carefully, however, and keep in mind that you can't watch them 24/7, and some kids may resent your monitoring. [3]

7. Take advantage of parental control features on your computer by restricting inappropriate content.

8. Review your child's friend list and ask questions if you see a friend unfamiliar to you.

9. Ask your child to refrain from positing photographs. Photos of children may be targets for pedophiles. If you do allow photos, be sure they don't include any identifiable information like the exterior of your homes, as this may be a target for criminals. [4]

10. Do Facebook "reviews" with them. Log on together and review your child's recent activity so you can show that you trust him/her but you are still their parent. [4]

11. Teach your child to trust their "uh-oh" feeling. [12] Encourage them to tell you or another reliable adult if they feel threatened or awkward because of something somebody said or did online. Do your best to collect and print any threats that occur via email, instant messages, postings, etc. If you feel that your child is in danger, report the incident to the police as well as the social networking Web site.

How To Delete Underage Accounts

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If your child is under the age of 13 and using Facebook, you may show your child how to delete his/her account by clicking this link.

To report an underage Facebook user, fill out the appropriate form here.

To obtain data on your child's Facebook account, click here. You will be asked to submit a notarized statement saying you are the child's parent or guardian.

To delete an underage MySpace account, click here.

Important Laws

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Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) www.coppa.org- This law requires websites to acquire parental consent for children under the age of 13 years old before collecting, using or disclosing personal information. [6]

The California Online Privacy Protection Act (OPPA) This California state law requires websites to post and comply with a privacy policy that can be found easily by its users. The law applies to any website that is accessible by California residents. [7]

Helpful Organizations

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Federal Trade Commission www.ftc.org

Children's Advertising Review Unit (CARU) www.caru.org

National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) www.missingkids.com or www.netsmartz.org

i-SAFE www.i-safe.org