By Anne Collier
Last week a look at social networking U13s on Facebook in the US; this week, a fascinating, more in-depth look at Europe, thanks to the thorough, recently released pan-European research of EU Kids Online.
Though there’s a lot of variation country by country, European youth as a whole are just as avid a group of online social networkers as American kids and teens are, if not more so. Among 13-to-16-year-olds in 25 European countries, 77% use social network sites (SNS), according to EU Kids Online , compared to 73% of American 12-to-17-year-olds in 2010 (the latest figure available from the Pew Internet & American Life Project ). Facebook is the dominant SNS in Europe, with 57% of European 9-to-16-year-olds using it and more than 70% using it in 14 of the 25 EU countries. FB use is as high as 98% among youth in Cypress to as low as 2% of Polish youth, and it’s No. 1 in 17 of the countries. Where FB’s No. 2, the most popular site is Nasza-Klasa (NK.pl) in Poland (with no age restriction), Tuenti.com in Spain (min. age of 14), Hyves.nl in the Netherlands (no restriction), and San Francisco-based Hi5.com in Romania (min. age of 13). Three other popular SNS in Europe are schulerVZ (schuelervz.net) in Germany (min. age of 12) and iWiW.hu and Myvip.com in Hungary (neither with age restrictions).
The under-age dilemma
There’s a lot of variation in European 9-to-12-year-olds’ use of SNS: “In Hungary [at iWiW], Lithuania (all SNS), and the Netherlands (Hyves), almost as many younger [9-12] as older children [13-16] use the top SNS. But in Norway, France and Belgium – where Facebook, with a minimum age of 13, is most popular – three times as many older as younger children use the top SNS,” says EU Kids Online. Europe-wide, 38% of 9-to-12-year-olds have social network profiles. The authors suggest it’s possible that, if sites removed age restrictions, currently underage users would be less likely to lie about their ages so sites could ID the younger ones better and provide protective measures for them. On the other hand, if there were no age restrictions, the number of 9-to-12-year-olds in SNS “might rise substantially,” passing regulatory responsibility on to parents, only half of whom “wish to restrict their children’s use of SNS,” and that half of half of European parents who do restrict their children’s use “are only partially successful,” especially with teenage children. They’re more successful with children under 13. So should SNS keep the age restrictions in place and educate young people more, as has been done quite effectively in the UK? Effective because, although UK 9-to-12-year-olds are “the most likely in Europe to display an incorrect age, they are also most likely to keep their profile private.” As for other countries, in most of them, (15 of 25), 9-to-12-year-olds are more likely than older children to have their profiles public.
Parents’ restrictions vary from country to country, EU Kids Online found – from more than 70% saying their kids (9-16) can social network anytime in four countries (Lithuania, Estonia, Denmark, and Sweden) to under 40% saying that in two countries (Turkey and Germany). Their other choices in the survey were “can never social network” and “can only do so with permission or supervision.” In Germany, the responses were the most evenly split, with 37% saying never, 27% saying only with permission, and 36% saying anytime. At the opposite end was next-door Lithuania, where that restrictiveness range was 10%, 7%, and 83%. But French parents are the most restrictive, with 45% not allowing their kids to use SNS. On the nonrestrictive side, “among children whose parents impose no restrictions, most have an SNS profile, including three quarters of the youngest ages [9-12].”
From parents’ to sites’ & government’s protections
The EC requires the sites that sign onto its Safer Social Networking Principles (of the top 8 SNS in Europe, only Hi5 has not signed on) to be age-appropriate, to delete underage users, to have minors’ profiles private by default, to encourage and enable minors to use the privacy settings, and to make it easy for minors to report inappropriate content or conduct. But the current situation is that, “in most countries (15 of 25), younger children (9-12) are more likely than older children (13-16) to have their profiles public,” and “compared to schülerVZ [with a min. age of 12] or Hyves [with no age min.], it is notable that among Facebook users a larger proportion of younger children have their profiles set to ‘public’.”
As long as this blog post is, it’s just a snapshot of the researcher’s own snapshot of months of work involving so many countries. Do yourself a favor and look at their well-organized, easy-on-the-eye view of young Europeans’ online socializing. For a bit of informed European perspective on policymakers’ view of all this – and whether pressure on social media companies may be growing on that side of the Atlantic, see “A revolutionary moment” and “Did Mr. Smith say something radical?” in the blog of influential youth safety advocate John Carr in the UK.