LIKE more than 500 million people around the world, I have a Facebook account.
My son, who is eight years of age, would like one too. Aside from the fact that his mother and I don't think it's wise for a child of his age to be surfing the internet, Facebook doesn't allow it. Most popular social networking sites, such as Facebook and MySpace, restrict the minimum age of their users to 13. But that doesn't stop pre-teens from setting up accounts by entering a false age.
A large part of the appeal of Facebook is its accessibility. It's ridiculously easy to set up an account. Just to prove it, I set up a page in my son's name. All I needed was an email address (which his mother and I have the password for) and when it came to entering his age, I simply wrote that he was five years older than he actually is. Simple. It takes less than five minutes.
"It's up to parents themselves," says Catherine Bolger, registered psychologist with DIT. "They have a responsibility to strictly supervise their children's and young teens' access to any internet sites -- not just social networking sites. It sounds obvious but parents need to know what their children are doing."
But pre-teens are resourceful and have embraced technology with an ease that their parents can sometimes find difficult to comprehend. And it's not just a question of monitoring the family's computer any more -- most mobile phones now have internet capabilities.
More children can now use a smart-phone than can tie their own shoelaces or make breakfast, according to a January 2011 survey by software company AVG. In the poll of 2,200 mothers with internet access and children aged between two and five, more children knew how to play with a smart-phone app (19pc) than tie their own shoelaces.
While there are no statistics available to indicate how many pre-teens have social networking accounts, Facebook themselves say that they take a zero-tolerance line with those who give a false age when signing up.
"Facebook has systems in place to prevent people who identify themselves as under the age of 13 from creating accounts," says a Facebook spokesperson when asked about their age verification process. "It's a violation of our Statement of Rights and Responsibilities (http://facebook.com/terms.php) to provide false birth-date information, and we have community verification systems after sign-up to help identify people who are doing this so we can take action."
Facebook admits that age verification is a difficult area to police. "There is no 'perfect' solution when it comes to age verification -- on Facebook or anywhere else on the web. A child of any age can head to a search engine and look for whatever they want, from perfectly acceptable material to the highly unsavoury. What the Facebook environment offers in contrast to the wider internet is, in effect, a walled garden that enables teens to share the best of the web and consume it in a safe place where unacceptable content is quickly removed."
If Facebook itself doesn't have the answer, what hope do parents have? When it comes to social networking, they can either use software to block the websites or can give in to their pre-teens' requests and allow them to set up accounts online.
Neither is a real solution, say experts. Linda Criddle, author of Look Both Ways: Help Protect Your Family on the Internet says parents should respect the guidelines of any website that their child wants to join. "Doing otherwise teaches children that it's okay to disregard the terms and conditions of the service," she says.
Blocking social networking websites is not the answer, says Simon Grehan of Webwise.ie, a Government, sponsored safety initiative, providing internet safety information, advice and tools for parents and teachers.
"Parents have to take a common-sense approach. Parents have to open the lines of communication rather than just looking for filtering options to block social networking sites."
Although Facebook has self-imposed the 13-year-old restriction, Grehan says that parents should judge for themselves when a child is ready for these types of websites. "Parents know their children better than anyone else. Some kids of 11 are very mature, while some kids of 15 are very immature. So parents themselves are best placed to make the decision of when their children are ready."
Cyber-bullying remains a big concern of many parents. Last year the case of Irish teen Phoebe Prince made international headlines. The 15-year-old girl, who moved with her family to Massachusetts, was allegedly subjected to a sustained campaign of online abuse, which prosecutors have said led to her suicide in January 2010. And it's not an isolated incident. Newspapers and the internet are littered with stories about cyber bullying and worse on networking sites.
But parents should take heart. Irish kids are among the most responsible users of social networking websites, according to a Europe-wide study conducted late in 2010.
The EU Kids Online research found that Irish children are the least likely to publish their address or phone number on their profile (just 7pc in Ireland compared to 14pc in Europe) and most likely to have a private profile (11pc). Irish children are less likely to encounter key risk factors -- pornography, bullying, sending/receiving sexual messages, going to meetings with contacts first met online-- than most of their European peers. Children here ranked 21 out of 23 for having seen sexual images online in the past 12 months.
But the more children use the internet, the more they are likely to encounter risk. Next Tuesday, February 8, is Safer Internet Day, and to mark the occasion, a new online resource is to be launched to help parents get involved in what their children are doing online, (www.facebook.com/ webwise). Communication is the key when it comes to the internet, says Aine Lynch, CEO of the National Parents Council Primary, which is involved in the Internet Safer Day: "One of the reasons children say that they don't tell parents about things they come across on the internet that they feel uncomfortable with, is they feel that their parent may take away access to the computer. So it is important that you reassure your child that they can come to you about anything they may have seen on the internet."
Aine advises that parents establish ground rules with their children: "It is important to talk to your child about the areas of personal information and meeting with online friends. For rules and boundaries to be really effective they are best developed between you and your child. If your child has had an input in developing the agreement in relation to their internet usage they are more likely to see the rules and sanctions as fair and are therefore more likely to abide by them.
"Rules should be very clear that your child does not give out personal information."
For more see www.facebook.com/ webwise or www.webwise.ie