EU Reports: Social Networks Fail to Keep Children Safe

“This is not only to protect minors from unwanted contacts but also to protect their online reputation. Youngsters do not fully understand the consequences of disclosing too much of their personal lives online. Education and parental guidance are necessary, but we need to back these up with protection until youngsters can make decisions based on full awareness of the consequences."

“I am disappointed that most social networking sites are failing to ensure that minors’ profiles are accessible only to their approved contacts by default. I will be urging them to make a clear commitment to remedy this in a revised version of the self-regulatory framework we are currently discussing,” stated Neelie Kroes, Vice President of the European Commission for the Digital Agenda.

“This is not only to protect minors from unwanted contacts but also to protect their online reputation. Youngsters do not fully understand the consequences of disclosing too much of their personal lives online. Education and parental guidance are necessary, but we need to back these up with protection until youngsters can make decisions based on full awareness of the consequences.”

Only two social networking sites Bebo and MySpace tested by EU have default settings to make minors’ profiles accessible only to their approved list of contacts. Only Bebo, MySpace, Netlog and SchuelerVZ ensure minors can be contacted by default by friends only.

The commission’s report also revealed that a majority of 14 social networking sites tested do give minors age-appropriate safety information, respond to requests for help and prevent minors’ profiles from being searched via external search engines.

The Commission’s tests were carried out between December 2010 and January 2011 on Arto, Bebo, Facebook, Giovani, Hyves, Myspace, Nasza-klaza, Netlog, One, Rate, VZnet, Galleria, Tuenti and Zap. Researchers tested the sites in their main language and found that while most provide basic safety information, it was not consistent throughout all the sites that were tested.

On a positive note, nine of the 14 sites explained their policies regarding children in a “child-friendly” manner, and in general the sites respond to requests for help, and prevent minors’ profiles from being searched by external search engines.

The possibility of tagging people in pictures, offered by most social networking services, makes it very easy to search for someone’s photos online. Ten of the sites tested allowed potential strangers (so-called ‘friends’ of friends’) to contact minors through personal messages or comments on their public profiles, increasing the risks of online grooming or cyber-bullying.

Facebook was not favored in the report. Researchers found that although the reporting mechanisms for inappropriate content or behavior are easy to use, Facebook does not react swift to user reports and that when signed in to Facebook as minor, some of the adverts displayed on the profile could be considered inappropriate. Users must be 13 or older to use Facebook, but the rule relies on self-declaration without parental control devices.

Nine more companies — Dailymotion, Google, Microsoft Europe, Skyrock, Netzwerke, Stardoll, Sulake, Yahoo Europe and Wer-kennt-wen — have also signed the Safer Social Networking Principles. EU has not tested them yet, but will later this year.

“Clearly, the Commission is not happy with the situation,” said spokesman Jonathan Todd told Mobiledia, adding that since the EU doesn’t have legislation powers to enforce a solution, the agency is using “peer pressure, that’s why we’ve named and shamed today.”