The European Commission looks set to tighten a voluntary code of conduct for social networks after research revealed a quarter of children using the sites leave their profiles accessible to all.
A survey of 25,000 children revealed that 77% of 13 to 16 year olds and 38% of those aged 9 to 12 have profiles on social networks, but that a worrying 25% of those leave their profiles open. A further 20% of those also posted their address and, or, phone number on the site, flaunting one of the most basic online security measures available.
The study, conducted by research group EUKidsOnline, looks set to inform a forthcoming EC review into the implementation of the 2009 Safer Social Networking Principles agreement, a voluntary code that saw leading social network operators including Facebook, Bebo and MySpace agree to take steps to protect users aged under 18.
Project director Sonia Livingstone, a professor at the London School of Economics, says the research shows age limits introduced by several social networks aren’t working. However it is younger users that are at greatest risk, being “less likely to use privacy options and to understand the safety features that are available,” she notes.
Neelie Kroes, commissioner for the EC’s Digital Agenda, said the onus is on social network operators to take urgent action to protect minors who aren’t safeguarding themselves. “All social networking companies should therefore immediately make minor’s profiles accessible by default only to their approved list of contacts and out of search engine’s reach.”
Children that do not lock down their profiles leave themselves “vulnerable to stalkers and groomers,” Kroes warned, adding that companies yet to sign up to the code of conduct “should do so without delay.”
Online security is foremost in Kroes’ mind at present, as she seeks to build trust in a digital economy considered essential to the future prosperity of the European Union. Last week the commissioner called for more action on cross-border security to protect the region from cyber attack, revealing the digital economy is already on-par with Belgium’s national economy and is growing at 12% per annum.
Despite the strong words, a spokeswoman admitted to Telecoms Europe.net there is little the EC can do to force the issue of child protection, noting there is no “legislative mechanism in place.”