Social networking sites must do more to protect their child users

THREE of the most popular social networking sites on the Internet are not doing enough to protect their child users, an independent expert audit has concluded.

The investigation by web usability consultants at User Vision, one of Europe’s leading independent user experience companies, found that Facebook, Bebo and MySpace all lacked targeted, clear information about online security for under 18s.

People are more worried than ever before about identity theft and protecting children from predatory adults, yet social networking sites which rely on users giving out as many details about themselves as possible have never been more popular.

Sites such as Facebook, Bebo and MySpace have become lucrative targets for advertisers.

User Vision’s experts believe all three sites have a “social and corporate responsibility” to replace at least one-in-50 views of these highly visible spaces with a warning about safety online on the profiles of their members who are under 18.

Emma Kirk, strategic director of User Vision, said:

All three of these hugely popular social networking websites should be doing more to protect the young people using their sites. They have a social and corporate responsibility to do so.

We were particularly concerned to find that the privacy policy and the information on staying safe were presented by two of the three sites in almost identical ways whether we joined as adults or using a child’s pseudonym.

As children often sign up to these sites to get as many friends as possible – some even buy software which ‘crawls’ the web looking for accessible addresses and then invites the person to be their friend whether they know them or not – it is vital safety and privacy issues are given a high profile.

During the User Vision usability evaluation, one of the Edinburgh-based team signed up to Bebo giving only his name and city location yet almost every morning he found at least three emails from people he did not know asking to be his Bebo “friend”.

In another example of quite how many friends someone can accumulate on MySpace, the singer Lily Allen has a running total of nearly 420,000 friends.

User Vision found that Facebook had offered the least effective privacy policy in terms of usability. Whether someone signed in as an adult, a college student or a child the terms of use and privacy policy were the same – all required the user to click a link to read more about privacy.

There was no additional or different text for children that highlights how important this information is.

Emma Kirk said:

Within the Facebook privacy policy there is a section on the safe use of the site which has a good question and answer section. The problem we have identified is that, in terms of usability, it is unlikely ever to be read by someone under the age of 16.

On Bebo, the User Vision team found that there was an option for new users to hide their age, but no explanation for children to show why this would be important. The Bebo privacy policy is tucked away at the bottom of the screen below a “save & continue” button, leading User Vision to conclude few users would see it or read on.

However, once a Bebo user begins to edit – or personalise – their profile the site automatically produces clear safety tips for the under 21s and also makes clear that their age will not be displayed publicly if they are under 18.

Emma Kirk added:

What we found surprising about Bebo was that it had gone to the lengths of filming a high quality video on privacy, but it is hidden in a link at the bottom of the page that very few children would ever see.

User Vision’s evaluation found that MySpace was similar to Facebook in not giving any prominent security warnings to children users. It was the only one of the three social networking sites to ask users to give their postcode, a policy Emma Kirk said raised particular security and privacy questions especially for children.

However, at the stage where a new user on MySpace reaches the point of being encouraged to upload some photographs there is a series of warnings given about the risks.

Emma Kirk said:

Children and young adults in their teens aren’t overly concerned with their information privacy. So the issue here may not be how these sites word their privacy policies but rather one of making privacy a concept that is accessible to teenagers.

Individually targeted advertising is becoming an increasingly prevalent tactic on the web, so social networking sites could target their privacy advertising at their users they know to be under 18.

At the end of the day, choice would still be with the user – but at least they would be better informed.

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