Children are signing up to social networks in their thousands. According to a significant research study by Ofcom half of children over the age of eight have a social networking account and profile. This is in spite of the fact that the networks themselves set an age limit of 13. Clearly it is not being policed effectively.

The same study also showed that only one in five adults have a social networking account; this represents a significant difference between the age groups. Most parents, therefore, are unlikely to have a social networking profile and consequently do not understand the systems or the implications for children. The best thing parents can do to help protect their children online is to sign up for Facebook, Bebo, MySpace and so on, so they can learn about the networks their children engage in.

Dr Tanya Byron Only last week, Dr Tanya Byron (right) published her report on children and the Internet. It makes the point – very well – that children should be allowed to explore the Internet, just like the “real world”, but that parents should be involved in guidance. Few parents do this, because hardly any of them engage in those parts of the Internet that their children do.

In your childhood you may well have gone jumping across streams, climbed trees and teased animals in a field. You’re aware of the risks your children take in childhood activities because you have experience and can therefore guide them. Now, your children are doing things you have never done, so parents have no experience with which they can support their youngsters.

I made this very point in my book “Protecting Children on the Internet” which I wrote five years ago now. You can still buy it at Amazon if you like…! However, if you’d like a copy of the typescript (no fancy layout or any illustrations) you can download it free of charge. I warn you it is out of date obviously, but the general points remain the same.

But what does all this mean for anyone running an online business? Sure, if you are a parent you can help your kids be safe online. But how many children engage with your web site? The Ofcom data suggests children as young as eight years old could be visiting your site. Is your web site safe for them? What do you to protect children on your site? What do you offer children?

Legislation is bound to arrive soon on what online businesses must do to protect children; better to get organised now. Equally, though, by offering interesting material to children you could build up a loyal future customer base. Banks, for instance, already do this with their children accounts, sometimes offering free piggy banks, cuddly toys and so on as incentives. But what do those self-same banks do online? The restrict their web sites to the over 18s only. Yet the children they are trying to attract do not want to engage in the branches, they want to engage with online banking. The banks think they are doing the right things to attract future customers, but doing the wrong things simply because they don’t understand – or don’t think about – the way children are behaving these days. They see the online world as essential in their daily activities. Is your business helping them?

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