Social networks targeted at underage children are "ideal" but their success may actually make them more attractive to predators, say security market players. Although there are additional safeguards in place on such sites, protection ultimately begins with house rules and close supervision.
Effendy Ibrahim, Norton Internet safety advocate and director for Asia at Norton by Symantec, said the risks of social networking will still remain even with social networking sites that are solely for underage children.
"As social networks gain more presence in the digital world, a new but real threat to kids online today is stranger danger," said Effendy. Citing the Norton Online Family Report 2011, he noted that 35 percent of children online have had a stranger befriending them on a social network.
Aside from that, the type of information and content which children post to their social networks is also another cause for concern, he said. "Kids may innocently post personal information like their phone number, home address and full date of birth or photos of themselves that could attract the wrong kind of attention," the executive noted.
The risks were highlighted earlier this month when a location-based flirting app pulled its minor-only service, after a series of rapes resulted from adults posing as teenagers preyed on other users.
Darya Gudkova, head of content analysis and research at Kaspersky Labs, also pointed out some of the concerns that come with having social-networking sites for underage children. While she noted it would be "ideal" to have such sites, if such it is successful, it will "definitely" attract predators who will misuse the site, she said.
Hard to protect children on social networks
Having an age-limited social network can also bring up two different issues, Gudkova noted. For one, the site must ensure that the users are indeed under the age limit as many people can always key in fake information, she said.
Another issue is that there is a need to ensure that underage children are using the sites targeted at their age limit instead of the current existing popular sites, she said.
However, Merle Bessner, co-founder of preadolescence-targeted virtual world BunkiMunki.com, believes that young children should be allowed to access age-appropriate only social network sites with parental consent.
"Kids need children-only Web sites to protect their privacy. A place where there are no personal images, no use of real names and no sharing of personal information, where they can learn responsible online behavior," she said.
Children benefit from social networks
Through BunkiMunki, Bessner noted that children are introduced to the skills required to communicate and behave responsibly while participating in a social network. They can also learn how to express themselves through journal writing, build confidence by earning badges as well as develop their creative thinking though creating tunes in the music mixer, she added.
"On BunkiMunki, we protect the privacy of children since they are not mature enough to have the foresight to know what they can and cannot share in an open or public forum," said the co-founder.
To protect its users, the virtual world has a strict "no real name" policy as it believes that a child's identity must remain private, said the co-founder. Other efforts include the inability to share personal information such as where the users live or where they go to school and the inability to upload personal images, she added.
The site also follows the guidelines of the U.S. Children's Online Privacy Protection Act and is certified by Privo, she said. The Act refers to a U.S. federal law which regulates how Web sites collect and use personal information from children under 13 years old.
Restricting social network access not solution
Despite the dangers online, both security players believed that restricting social-networking site access to underage children is not the way to go.
Gudkova said: "Rules and restrictions may be applied to the children but with the high accessibility to the Internet such as computers, Internet cafes and mobile devices, it is almost impossible to conduct a complete restriction."
Thus parents first need to understand the importance of being aware of what their children see and hear on the Internet, whom they meet and what they share about themselves, she added.
For Effendy, who is the father of four sons aged from 5 to 12, age should not be the primary consideration when it comes to accessing social networks. Instead, the focus should be on the environment at home, he said.
"As parents we should embrace the benefits of technology and in this case social networking platforms, but with vigilance," he said, adding that setting house rules and having the right security measures such as parental control software are important.