Only two social networking sites (Bebo and MySpace) tested on behalf of the European Commission have default settings to make minors' profiles accessible only to their approved list of contacts and only four sites (Bebo, MySpace, Netlog and SchuelerVZ) ensure minors can be contacted by default by friends only, a European Commission media statement on June 21 2011 said.
However, out of 14 social networking sites tested, most give minors age-appropriate safety information, respond to requests for help and prevent minors' profiles from being searched through external search engines.
The number of minors using social networking sites in the EU is growing - currently 77 per cent of 13 to 16 year olds and 38 per cent of nine to 12 year olds who use the internet.
The results feature in a report by the European Commission on implementation of the "Safer Social Networking Principles for the EU", a self-regulatory agreement brokered by the Commission in 2009 to keep children safe online.
As part of the objective set by the Digital Agenda for Europe to enhance trust in the internet, the European Commission has launched a review of the current self-regulatory agreements for the protection of minors online, the statement said.
Neelie Kroes, Vice President of the European Commission for the Digital Agenda said: "I am disappointed that most social networking sites are failing to ensure that minors' profiles are accessible only to their approved contacts by default.
"I will be urging them to make a clear commitment to remedy this in a revised version of the self-regulatory framework we are currently discussing. This is not only to protect minors from unwanted contacts but also to protect their online reputation," she said.
"Youngsters do not fully understand the consequences of disclosing too much of their personal lives online. Education and parental guidance are necessary, but we need to back these up with protection until youngsters can make decisions based on full awareness of the consequences," Kroes said.
The possibility of tagging people in pictures, offered by most social networking services, makes it very easy to search for a person's photos online.
Teenagers may face other risks online such as grooming and cyber-bullying, the Commission said.
"Children and teenagers need appropriate safety tools to manage their online identity in a responsible way."
The tests, carried out between December 2010 and January 2011, looked at 14 websites: Arto, Bebo, Facebook, Giovani.it, Hyves, Myspace, Nasza-klaza.pl, Netlog, One.lt, Rate.ee, SchülerVZ, IRC Galleria, Tuenti and Zap.lu. Another 9 sites will be tested later this year.
The report found that:
* 13 out of the 14 sites tested provide safety information, guidance and/or educational materials specifically targeted at minors (all except Arto).
* Safety information for minors is quite clear and age-appropriate on all sites that provide it, good progress since the first assessment last year. However this information is still difficult to find on many websites.
* Reporting mechanisms are more effective now than in 2010. 10 of the 14 sites tested responded to user reports asking for help, compared to only 5 of the 14 in 2010. In a majority of these cases responses came in less than a day.
* Bebo, Facebook, Myspace, Nasza-Klasa, One, Rate and SchuelerVZ provide safety information for children and parents which is both easy to find and to understand.
Further, the report found that:
* Only Bebo and MySpace ensure that minors' profiles are accessible only to their approved list of contacts by default.
* Only Bebo, MySpace, Netlog and SchuelerVZ ensure minors can be contacted by default only by their approved list of contacts.
* The 10 other sites tested allowed "friends of friends" (friends of their approved list of contacts who do not have a direct connection to the user, i.e. potential strangers.) and/or non-friends to contact minors through personal messages and/or comments on their public profiles (e.g. in photos, blogs, etc).
* Twelve of the 14 websites (all except Rate and Zap) make it impossible for the profiles of minors to be found through external search engines such as Google or Yahoo!, compared to six websites in 2010. However, on most websites profiles of minors could be found by other non-friend users via the internal search engines.
According to a EUKidsOnline survey earlier in 2011, 56 per cent of 11 to 12 year olds and 78 per cent of 15 to 16 year olds say they know how to change privacy settings on their social network profile.
Twenty-one companies have signed the Safer Social Networking Principles to date: Arto, Bebo, Dailymotion, Facebook, Giovani, Google, Hyves, Microsoft Europe, MySpace, Nasza-klasa, Netlog, One, Rate, Skyrock, VZnet Netzwerke, Stardoll, Sulake, Tuenti, Yahoo! Europe and Zap. Wer-kennt-wen signed-up in November 2010 but was not tested in the current assessment, the European Commission said.