EU Report on Children’s Social Media Safety: The Kids Aren’t Alright

Think kids of today -who have grown up surrounded by Facebook and Twitter – intrinsically understand social media safety? Think again. A report released by the European Commission for the Digital Age suggests that while more and more children are using social media, their use isn’t always safe.

Think kids of today -who have grown up surrounded by Facebook and Twitter – intrinsically understand social media safety?  Think again. A report released by the European Commission for the Digital Age suggests that while more and more children are using social media, their use isn’t always safe.

The Commission – which monitors the implementation of safe social networking practices in the EU – released a study on April 19th, 2011 which surveyed 25, 000 young people in 25 EU countries, and it reveals several key figures about children’s use of social media. According to the study, while 77% of 13-16 year olds and 38% of 9-12 year olds in the EU have a social media profile, a quarter of these children have their profile set to public. This means that anyone can view their personal information. In many cases, this information includes details such as email, phone number, and address.

Moreover, a mere 56% of 11-12 year olds stated that they understood how to set or change their privacy settings on their social media networks.  By age 15-16, this number increased to 78%, but, that means that 20% of teenagers do not know how to control their privacy settings.

Vice President of the European Commission for the Digital Agenda, Neelie Kroes,  notes: “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.” Kroes goes on to stress the importance of social networking sites protecting minor’s online safety, “All social networking companies should therefore 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.”

Social networks definitely should have a role to play in the safety of children online. In the same way that it would be irresponsible to build a playground beside a highway without a fence, it is equally important that social networks take appropriate steps to protect their users – even (perhaps especially) their underage users. However, the study raises important questions about safety and social media more broadly.

It is often the case that there is a delay between issues which impact youth (smoking, sex, drinking and driving, media literacy) and education, and the internet is a particularly tough topic because it is every evolving. Further, there is the assumption that children often understand technology better than their parents.

However, there is perhaps no better microcosm for the real world than the internet. On the one hand, the internet can be a very dangerous place; like the real world, it has disease (viruses/malware), bullying, impolite people using all caps in forum postings, and like the real world, it has predators, lurking behind screens. On the other hand, the internet can be a wonderful place; it is full of art, information, and people that love each other communicating in ways humans wouldn’t dare have imagined 109 years ago. It is also, like the real world, pretty much unavoidable.

So, parents, educators, and institutions needs to take the same approach to internet safety as they would to real world safety. While official curriculum may take years to implement, schools and individual teachers, need to consider seeking innovative and cutting edge ways of including social media safety into classrooms – and not just for teenagers. And, if a parent wouldn’t let their child walk to school without teaching them to cross the road first, the same principles should apply to social media.