Almost one-in-five children who use social networking sites had a negative experience last year, new research indicates.
This was one of several findings unveiled at the International Society for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect conference in Dublin, which provided troubling insights into the risks posed to young people by social networking.
The UK-based National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) conducted an anonymous online survey of more than 1,000 children aged between 11 and 16 last December. It found that during the previous year almost a fifth had had a personal experience on a social networking site that upset or bothered them. This included bullying, unwanted sexual messages, cyber stalking and feeling pressure to look a certain way.
It found that social networking sites were widely used by young people, despite minimum age barriers for users of sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
Claire Lilley, NSPCC safer technology expert, told the forum that social networking sites could do much more to protect underage children.
Other research at the conference confirmed the rising popularity of such sites. An EU Kids Online survey shows that three-quarters of European children aged 13-16, and 38 per cent of 9- to 12-year-olds, use social networking sites, including sites restricted to 13-year-olds and over.
Dr Brian O'Neill, who is responsible for the EU Kids Online project in Ireland, said there is evidence that children are going online at a younger age and that their lack of technical, critical and social skills may pose even greater risks.
One option discussed at the conference to make the internet a safer place for children is a cyber safety programme for young people on the risks posed by social networking.
Dr Mubarak Rahamathulla of Flinders University in Adelaide presented details of a training programme for 12- to 17-year-olds on how to use social networking safely. This includes such topics as how to manage Facebook "friends" and the pitfalls of uploading personal information.
The programme has been offered to schools and youth clubs across South Australia. It followed reports in Australia that some children as young as 12 had received sexually explicit material and meeting strangers on the internet.