UK telecoms regulator Ofcom published a report on 2nd April 2008 which reveals that 49% of children aged 8-17 who have access to the internet have their own personal profile on a social networking site. The minimum age for major social networking sites is supposedly 13 or 14, but 27% of 8-11 year olds who are aware of social networking sites claim to have a profile on a site. The research shows some amazing discrepancies between what parents think is taking place and what is really happening. Two-thirds of parents say that they set rules for their children's use of social networking sites, but only 53% of children agreed that their parents did so. 50% parents have installed some form of content blocking, and 80% of them think it works, but 67% of children believe that they can overcome it and access any content they want to. 24% of teenagers have a computer in their bedroom, so their parents can't see what they're doing in any case.
22% of adult internet users aged 16 and over have their own online profile. Adults often have a profile on more than one site and half of adult social network users claim to access their profile every other day. Facebook is the most popular site, followed by MySpace and then Bebo. Bebo is the social networking site most used by children aged between 8 and 17. Adults in lower socio-economic groupings are more likely to use MySpace.
Social networking sites are altering the normal meaning of the word 'friends' to include anyone a user has an online connection with, even those that they have never met or spoken to offline. Details of online friendships are often displayed publicly via friend lists, meaning that users are sharing personal details like political views, sexuality, religion and date of birth with people they barely know. Ofcom's research, which involved 5,000 adults and 3,000 children, suggests that there are five distinct groups of people who use social networking sites: * Alpha Socialisers - generally males aged under 25, who use sites in intense short bursts to flirt, find new friends and seek entertainment.
* Attention Seekers - generally females looking for attention and comments from others, often by posting photographs and customizing their profiles. Some younger women claimed to create fake profiles for fun. * Followers - these include males and females of all ages who join sites to keep track of what their peers are doing.
* Faithfuls - older males and females, generally aged over 20, who typically use social networking sites to rekindle old friendships, often from school or university. * Functionals - mostly older males who tend to be single-minded in using sites for a particular purpose. The research also suggests that there are three discrete groups of people who do not use social networking sites: * Concerned about safety - often older people and parents concerned about safety online, in particular making personal details available online.
* Technically inexperienced - these are often people aged over 30 who lack confidence in using the Internet and computers. * Intellectual rejecters - often older teens and young adults who have no interest in social networking sites and see them as a waste of time. Although privacy and safety are cited as major reasons for avoiding social networking sites, they do not appear to be a major worry for those who do use social networking sites. The research found that: * 41% of children and 44% of adults are content to leave their privacy settings at the default setting of 'open', making their profiles are visible to anyone * 34% of 16-24 year olds are willing to give out sensitive personal information such as their phone number or email address * 17% of adult users said that they talked to people on social networking sites that they didn't know and 35% spoke to people who were 'friends of friends'.
Some teenagers and young adults in their early twenties felt 'addicted' to social networking sites and realize that their use was reducing the time available for studying. Some users reported being aware of bullying through social networking sites and a minority of younger users admitted using social networking sites to take revenge on people they had had disagreements with.
Ted Hastings has many years of experience of IT and education. He has written a textbook on Internet Safety Skills and writes a regular blog entitled Surf Safely.