More children joining social networking sites

Today's children are "plugged in" from an early age, accessing the Internet from just about anywhere.

To help keep the tween set safe, most popular social networks have a minimum age requirement. But many parents are letting their kids log on anyway.

Like many of us, fifth-grader Annika likes to log on to Facebook.

"I post pictures. I play games," she said.

The problem? Technically, Annika shouldn't be on the social network. That's because she's just 11 years old. On sites like Facebook, MySpace, and YouTube, users are required to be 13 or older. But millions of kids are finding a way to join the digital revolution early.

"I know that 80% of my daughter's classmates are on Facebook," said Ciaran, Annika's mother.

"We're seeing 10, 11, 12, even 8 or 9-year-olds getting on," said Internet safety expert Larry Magid.

Magid says the minimum age is set at 13 because of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act.

"It requires web sites that are marketing to children, or that are aiming towards children, to require parental consent," said Magid. "The reason why sites like Facebook and YouTube don't try to get parental consent, it would just be unwieldy."

So how are these kids faking it? They're lying about their age, virtually creating a 'fake ID' online. Some create an account behind their parents' backs. Others ask permission first, then work with mom or dad to set up a profile.

"There was a recent study done from McAfee that showed that 37 percent of 10 to 13-year-olds, under 13, were on Facebook. And if you took all social networking, it was up to 50 percent," said Magid.

Rather than risk Annika creating an un-monitored account, her mom Ciaran decided to hold her digital hand.

"You would not just give your kid the keys to the car and ask them to drive at 16. I don't want to give her the keys to the Internet at 13," said Ciaran.

A lot of parents have the same opinion, and that worries parenting experts like Dr. Susan Newman.

"You're really teaching your children it's ok to tell small lies," said Newman. "Your child is going to think, 'Oh, this is not a big deal. I mean, my mother set me up an underage Facebook account, so I can tell her, well, I'm not really drinking, or I didn't really smoke much marijuana.'"

Dr. Newman also worries that children under 13 may not have the Internet savvy to avoid potential threats.

"When you're hit with, 'Everyone else is doing it mom, why not me?' You have to remember, a parent's job in life is to say no, to set limits," she said.

Facebook officials say they recognize there is no perfect solution when it comes to age verification on the web. When Facebook discovers an underage account, it deletes that account as quickly as possible.

Still, Magid says he can understand why many parents help their underage children. If you're one of them, he suggests you lay down some ground rules.

"Make sure they turn on the maximum privacy settings. Also, make sure that you're your child's Facebook friend," he said.

Make sure that you have the account password. And finally, keep an open dialogue.

"You need to talk to them about the safety issues. You need to talk about what's appropriate and what isn't," he said.

Ciaran also monitors friend requests and limits computer time.

"Because they know I'm watching, they're less likely to do something that's seriously damaging," she said.

For social networking safety tips and advice, log on to www.connectsafely.org. And for a step-by-step guide to privacy settings on Facebook, check out www.fbparents.org.