14/08/2014 12:58 BST | Updated 20/05/2015 06:12 BST

Half Of Children Under 10 Have Used Social Networking


Sometimes, it can feel like us parents are fighting a losing battle when it comes to our children's social media lives.

Just as we get used to Facebook and Twitter, along comes WhatsApp, BBM and SnapChat. And no doubt around the corner there will be more to come.

It can all feel deliberately designed to tempt our kids into keeping one step ahead of us concerned parents striving to keep them safe from the potential perils of the internet.

According to new research, more than half of children have used an online social network by the age of 10 – that's below what's supposed to be the minimum age (13), in case you didn't know.

The Social Age report for online safety advisory website Knowthenet found Facebook tops the list of sites that children sign up to under-age, with 52 per cent of eight to 16-year-olds admitting they had ignored the official age limit.

Other popular sites include WhatsApp, used by 40 per cent of eight to 16-year-olds, BBM (24 per cent), SnapChat (11 per cent) and (8 per cent).

Just as worryingly, the study found that although 59 per cent of children are social networking by 10 years old, just 32 per cent of parents feel 'very confident' about helping them stay safe online.

The poll found 21 per cent of children had posted negative comments, starting from an average age of 11, and 26 per cent had 'hijacked' another person's account and posted without permission.

Some 43 per cent had messaged strangers, starting from an average age of 12.

The study suggests that children are most likely to post an image or video of themselves online or set up a fake profile for the first time at the age of 11, try Twitter and message a stranger at 12 and try services like SnapChat and at the age of 13.

Two thirds (67 per cent) turn to their parents when they experience difficulties online, the poll found.

While 63 per cent of parents check their child's internet activity at least once a week, more than a fifth (21 per cent) are not confident they could install parental controls, and just under a half (46 per cent) admit not being confident or aware of the school internet policy.

Dr Richard Woolfson, child psychologist and Knowthenet spokesman, said: "The internet offers wonderful experiences for growing and inquisitive young minds.

"Yet, as social media has removed the barriers between a young person's public and private self, children can become vulnerable, and compulsive online sharing can lead to danger.

"As this study shows, children are gaining access to social media sites at a younger age, which could expose them to content, people or situations that are out of their depth and which they're not emotionally prepared for."

So what are we non-savvy parents to do about this? Cut the broadband cables and throw away their devices? That's not the answer.

Dr Woolfson advises: "Parents can no longer protect children by simply trying to limit their online experiences.

"Instead parents need to maintain an open dialogue and encourage children to share both good and bad online experiences, talk openly and straightforwardly about the risks they may encounter online without scaring them and make sure they keep up with the latest social media crazes and work with their children rather than trying to control them."

To help parents keep up, Knowthenet has launched a quiz to test their Social Age skills, along with handy guides on how to protect children online and talk to them about the issues.

One mother said: "You need a basic understanding of what your child is doing to guide them on what's appropriate and safe. I recently spoke to my 10-year-old son after I found out he was chatting to people he didn't know while playing on Xbox Live. Kids might not realise the risks about giving personal information to strangers."

Lesley Cowley , CEO of Nominet which funds Knowthenet, added: "Before helping children to be safe online, parents need to understand what the dangers are, especially as settings change or new trends emerge.

"It's good to see that most kids turn to their parents for help, so it's crucial they're up to speed on everything from securing their profile to reporting anything inappropriate."

Knowthenet also talked to 10–15 year olds who gave parents their own pointers on how best to approach online safety, saying:

• Trust us – we're mostly using these services for chatting to friends.

• Talk to us – we could always use some guidance if we forget or don't know what to do.

• Know the risks – we may not even guess the danger areas, you can help us spot them.

• Find out what we're up to at school – some are strict, some have more relaxed rules.

• Be mindful – parental controls don't catch everything if we use mobiles or friends' machines, which can put us at risk.