London - More than one in four nine and ten-year-olds use social networking websites, a major study has found.
Primary school pupils are routinely lying about their age to circumvent rules designed to ban them from sites such as Facebook.
Many have hundreds of online “friends” or contacts, which can include complete strangers.
With social networks admitting that information given by users about their age is not routinely verified, there are fears that even younger children could be using the websites and putting themselves at risk of online grooming.
The concerns follow one of the most wide-ranging and comprehensive studies ever conducted on children’s use of the internet, spanning 33 European countries.
More than one in ten children in the UK aged nine to 16 have been exposed to sexual images online – and two percent have seen explicit images featuring violence.
One in five teenage girls have visited websites promoting anorexia or bulimia, and a small number had looked at sites showing “ways of committing suicide”.
The study also found that nearly half of parents do not use internet filtering systems to protect their children from extreme content.
The Daily Mail is campaigning for an automatic block on online porn to protect children. Over-18s would be able to see adult images if they specifically “opt-in” to do so, but only after going through a stringent age-verification process. Claire Perry, a Tory MP who chaired a parliamentary inquiry into online child safety earlier this year, said: “If, for example, Facebook want nine and ten-year-olds on their site, they should provide a safer environment for them. The site is supposed to be ‘13 or older’ but Facebook doesn’t enforce it, and that is very worrying.
“It’s like taking a child to a town centre and saying ‘go out there and chat to anyone you want’. A parent would not do that, so it’s about allowing things to happen on the internet that no one would allow in real life.”
The research, based on interviews with more than 25,000 children, was conducted by the EU Kids Online Project based at the London School of Economics.
More than 1,000 internet users aged nine to 16 were surveyed in the UK alone. Facebook was the most widely-used social networking site, but alternatives included Bebo, Myspace and Twitter, as well as sites devoted to younger children such as Moshi Monsters and Club Penguin.
Of those interviewed, 67 percent had their own profile on a social networking site. The European average was 59 percent. Among children aged nine and ten, 28 percent had their own profile, rising to 59 percent for 11 and 12-year-olds.
The report, National Perspectives, found that UK children “report substantially more social networking site contacts... including some that are not known to them face-to-face”.
It added that Britain was “distinctive” in the high number of nine to 12-year-olds who lied about their age online. Researchers noted that “many providers ban users under 13” but added: “Without widely-employed age verification techniques, it has been suspected that some users are ‘under-age’.”
Professor Sonia Livingstone, who led the study, said the UK was a “high use, some risk” country – but this was “an improvement” on previous findings of “high use, high risk”.
Jon Brown of the NSPCC said: “This report shows that even for very young children the internet is now part and parcel of everyday life. It’s therefore imperative that we protect them from the dangers they may face.
“Unlike TV, radio, film and even computer games the internet is not tightly regulated, and without proper supervision and education in keeping themselves safe children can be at risk.”
He said firms “must also play their part in making sure the vast wealth of technology available to keep kids safe is easy to use for parents”. - Daily Mail