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It is perhaps difficult to believe that the term ‘social networking site’ (SNS) was not widely recognised back in 2004 when teenagers in the US first discovered MySpace (see boyd & Ellison, 2007). With the ‘open’ nature of social networking using digital technology, concern about children’s safety remains paramount to commentators and child experts. While there are many positive aspects of children using social networking sites, dangers undoubtedly exist – not just infiltration by online predators but also the possibility of cyberbullying. While children are open about their lives and want to share their worlds, they could potentially be putting themselves at risk, causing them emotional distress. My doctoral research carried out over the last three years however has indicated that most children are careful about who they speak to online, and are aware of the dangers.

Young adolescents, that is 10 -14 years olds, have only begun to use SNSs with such enthusiasm in the last three years, with the start age becoming ever younger, despite an age restriction of 13 plus. In the past decade there has been immense interest in looking at children’s use of the internet, indeed my colleagues and I at NOP (GfK NOP) carried out ‘Kids.net research’ 1999 – 2002, a six-monthly quantitative and qualitative study that measured and sought to understand the way in which children aged 7 – 16 were using the internet. The notion of looking at young people’s social networking sites such as Bebo, Facebook, Piczo in the last year or two has generated several large research studies. Many parents, perhaps prompted by media headlines that point out the ‘dark side’ of such sites are fearful of their children’s use of SNSs. Mizuko Ito and her team in the US have considered this in their comprehensive Digital Youth Project (2008). Ito argues that while adults may worry that their children are becoming social isolates, ‘what’s interesting .. . with the internet and gaming is that most of these activities are being conducted in a social context, even though the kids may not be physically together.’ Similarly the excellent EU Kids Online research that Sonia Livingstone has co-ordinated with colleagues at the LSE has concluded that concerns about the ‘darks side’ of the internet need to be balanced with a recognition that children also gain a great deal in their use of digital technology.

From my ethnographic study carried out over the last three years, my sense is that while most children in my research appear to be very sensitive and wise about their use of social networking sites, there is some concern for those children who are more vulnerable. It might be that the same children who are vulnerable to predators in the off-line world are the same as those children who are vulnerable in the on-line world. I will be exploring this more on Thursday when I’m speaking at the Cambridge (Faculty of Education) Bullying Conference , (http://www.educ.cam.ac.uk/events/conferences/) and on Friday when I’m speaking at the Showcomotion Conference (http://www.showcomotionconference.com/) .

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Email: katy@kidsandyouth.com

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