IRISH children as young as nine are exposing themselves to risk on websites such as Facebook and Bebo according to a new report. The rules ban under-13 year-olds from signing up to social network sites, but this has not stopped tens of thousands of pre-teens in Ireland joining the craze.
Many children lie about their age, and about half of 11 and 12 year olds and one in five children aged nine to 10 have social networking profiles, research found.
Many parents appear to go along with their children's use of social networking sites, and while the research found strong parental restrictions for the youngest users, attitudes were more mixed for 11-12 year olds.
Even more worryingly, many children are at greater jeopardy by not using privacy settings properly, or at all.
There is a growing acceptance that the age restrictions are not effective in preventing underage access, and other ways must be found to protect young children.
The study was carried out at Dublin Institute of Technology in 2010, but with the explosion in social networking, the figures are believed to be much higher now.
More than half of 11-12 year olds and almost one-quarter of nine to 10 year olds were allowed to use a site such as Facebook. Some, but not all, were required to have a parent supervising at the time.
DIT researcher Dr Brian O'Neill, one of the authors of the report, said it was not possible for social networks to identify which users were under 13.
A Facebook spokesperson said reports had highlighted just how difficult it was to enforce age restrictions on the internet, especially when parents wanted their children to access online services.
"We are in continuous dialogue with stakeholders, regulators, and other policymakers about how best to keep kids safe in an evolving online environment," said the spokesperson.