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London - Facebook was accused on Tuesday of making cynical and “wholly irresponsible” plans to encourage younger children to set up accounts by removing age restrictions.

At present under-13s are banned from joining the hugely popular American social network site, although millions have got around the rules by lying about when they were born.

But now details have emerged of technology developed by Facebook that would allow youngsters of primary school age to sign up for the service legitimately, with the approval of their parents, for the first time.

There was an outcry on Tuesday night from child protection campaigners. They said vulnerable young children could be exposed to cyber-bullying, adult material and aggressively targeted advertising. It would also result in many youngsters publishing intimate personal information to the world because they do not understand the importance of privacy settings.

Former British children’s minister Tim Loughton accused Facebook of failing to do enough to enforce its existing age restrictions.

“We need to send out a clear and strong message to children that the internet needs to be used responsibly, and you need to be of a responsible age to be able to use it safely,” he said. “We’ve had so many cases of under-age kids accessing adult and violent material. To say tiny kids can go on to it is wholly irresponsible.”

Parenting website Netmums co-founder Siobhan Freegard said: “By removing the age rule it could see primary age children being encouraged to go online and speak to strangers. Having the 13 rule in place won’t stop children going on Facebook, but it is a deterrent and it does say grown-ups are in charge.”

Peter Bradley, of charity Kidscape, said: “The reason Facebook are looking at legitimising under-13s on their site is for the income stream.”

A US patent application, lodged by Facebook in 2012 but only made public now, details a system for letting young children join by having a parent with an account to authorise their application.

Facebook would carry out automatic checks to verify the named parent was an adult and was related to the child. The parent could then oversee the child’s Facebook activity.

Facebook is understood to have no immediate plans to open up to under-13s. A spokesman said it wanted to help parents keep children safe online, adding: “A patent application based on two-year-old research is not a predictor of future work in this area.” - Daily Mail