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A third of Facebook friends are under 13, despite site's rules

Published: Tuesday, May 10 2011 12:58 p.m. MDT

Kids have to be 13 to join Facebook, according to the rules, but a new report shows that of the 20 million minors who actively used Facebook in the past year, more than a third of them are under age 13.

According to projections from Consumer Reports' latest State of the Net survey, 7.5 million Facebook users are under 13, and more than 5 million were 10 and under.

The Consumer Reports survey also found their accounts were largely unsupervised by their parents, which increases the possibility of such problems as exposure to malware or serious threats such as predators or bullies.

The report on Internet security, which includes the full survey and advice for parents is featured in the magazine's June issue and on ConsumerReports.org.

According to Facebook's gender and birth requirements, "we ask for your date of birth to verify that you are 13 or older, and so that we can better limit your access to content and advertisements that are not age-appropriate."

Jeff Fox, technology editor for Consumer Reports, notes that the most troubling part of the report may be that a majority of parents of kids 10 and under seemed largely unconcerned by their children's use of the site. Using Facebook presents children and their friends and family with safety, security and privacy risks, he notes. "In the past year, the use of Facebook has exposed more than five million online U.S. households to some type of abuse including virus infections, identify theft and — for a million children — bullying."

Gwenn S. O'Keeffe, a board-certified pediatrician and Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, notes that letting children use Facebook before age 13 is akin to letting them buy beer with a fake id. "As mature as our kids may appear as pre-teens, they are not fully developed yet and do not understand the social nuances of the online world. They have enough issues with the offline world socially — think about all the hiccups they face with friends each month. Plus, would you let your preteen hang with teens in real life?"

ReallyWorried.com, a forum that lets parents share advice and concerns on various aspects of life lists underage internet use as one of its worries.

Despite the potential damage of cyber bullying, it is alarmingly common among adolescents and teens. According to cyberbullying statistics from the i-SAFE foundation, more than half of adolescents and teens have been bullied online, and more than 1 in 3 young people have experienced cyber threats. More than half of young people do not tell their parents when cyber bullying occurs.

Nor is underage Facebook use limited to the United States. A 2008 poll in England found that "nearly a quarter of children between the ages of eight and 12 are evading the age restrictions imposed by social networking sites Facebook, Bebo and MySpace. The results suggest that more than 750,000 children are illicitly using the sites — which are supposed to be limited to teenagers and adults — potentially exposing them to risky communications with strangers.

Consumer Reports urges parents to monitor their children's accounts, utilize Facebooks privacy controls, turn off Instant Personalization and use apps with caution.

Email: carma@desnews.com

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