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The Online Mom provides internet technology advice and information to help parents protect their kids, encourage responsible behavior and safely harness the power of technology in the new digital world. Social networking, photo sharing, video games, IM & texting, internet security, cyberbullying, educational resources, the latest on tech hardware, gadgets and software for kids 3-8, tweens and teens, and more.

Underage social networking

We have written a lot recently about the dilemma parents face when tweens or even younger children want to set up a social networking page. Although Facebook, MySpace and the other big networks all have 13-and-older sign-up policies, many parents quietly go along with the request, seeing an opportunity to take control of the account and teach important lessons about online safety.

In the comments we have received, parents seem evenly divided: half believing that early sign-up is a good idea, while the rest ask what example do we show our kids if we tell them it’s OK to lie about their age?

Now, new research from Microsoft’s Trustworthy Computing group reveals how widespread the incidence of underage social networking has become. In a survey of 1,051 U.S. children aged 5-17 with access to the Internet, 38% were reported to have opened their first social networking account before the age of 13. Keep in mind that the survey was conducted among parents rather than the children themselves, so the number is likely to be significantly higher when you factor in accounts that parents don’t know about.

Of those children under 13 that have social networking accounts, 84% use either Facebook or MySpace. Among these accounts, approximately 9 out of 10 were opened with a parent’s permission.

Although parents may be complicit in allowing underage social networking, they do so with their eyes wide open. Parents overwhelmingly believe (95%) that they are primarily responsible for keeping their children safe when using social networks, and most (67%) help set up their children’s accounts and continue to monitor usage.

When it comes to assessing the risks associated with social networking, parents are more concerned about sexual predators and identity theft than they are about cyberbullying. This despite the fact that cyberbullying is far more prevalent on social networks than other risky behavior.

In what might be discouraging news for the security software industry, parents tend to monitor their child’s behavior by “friending” them (56%), checking their browser history (52%), or by logging into their account (49%). Parental control software is used to monitor social networking activity in just 10% of households.

Comment by Kerstin, posted 11/8/2010, 12:18 AM:

My 14 year old joined Facebook just recently. I allowed her because she told me she just wants to connect with her friends and with our long distant relatives. Now, my 10 year old wants to have one too. Do you think I made a right decision allowing her? And if it is alright to allow my 10 year old also. I am worried since I have heared many online threats on the news but I also think that with proper guidance, my kids could learn responsibility. Opinions?
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