Respected consumer bible Which? has conducted research into the dangers posed to children by social networking sites such as MySpace and Bebo and has found behaviour which it says could shock parents. Users of the sites are exposed to bullying, pornography and junk food advertising, said the report, and parents are largely unaware of the problems.
"They should have this common code of practice to make sure that there are measured and sensible approaches to keep safe online," said Kim Gilmour, one of the researchers on the study for Computing Which?.
"I think it's one solution, because they are all running their own businesses they all have the same interests so I think they are moving towards coming up with something like that," said Gilmour. She was talking to OUT-LAW Radio, the weekly podcast from OUT-LAW.
"We have seen similar appointments with MySpace and Bebo in terms of getting a safety officer to look after the site and head up that side of things. There does need to be more communication with industry and government and parents to discuss how to make these sites safe."
The Which? researchers found that they had no difficulty posing as 14 year olds in order to set up profiles and that as 14 year olds they were quickly exposed to pornographic material. "We were able to set up accounts as 14 year olds and we were able to access pornography and unsavoury content without actively looking for it," said Gilmour.
While the research found some shocking material that might alarm parents, Gilmour said that the best way they could deal with the situation was by trying to understand their children and talk to them.
"I think parents will be surprised to see some of this content, especially the discussions that teenagers are having amongst themselves and they should try not to be alarmed or shocked because they should think back to when they were a teenager and realise that this is the type of discussion they were having 20 years ago, it's just that now it's actually out on the internet if they make their profiles readable by everyone," she said.
All websites are currently covered by a police and Home Office good practice guide on how to safely offer interactive services for children. Gilmour said that it would be too difficult to legislate social networking sites since it would be very difficult to distinguish them from other sites.
In October, social networking is among the issues explored in our free, one-hour seminar on the Legal Risks of Web 2.0 for your Business.
See: OUT-LAW Breakfast Seminars