THREE of the most popular social networking sites on the Internet are not doing enough to protect their child users, an independent expert audit has concluded.

The investigation by web usability consultants at User Vision, one of Europe’s leading independent user experience companies, found that Facebook, Bebo and MySpace all lacked targeted, clear information about online security for under 18s.

People are more worried than ever before about identity theft and protecting children from predatory adults, yet social networking sites which rely on users giving out as many details about themselves as possible have never been more popular.

Sites such as Facebook, Bebo and MySpace have become lucrative targets for advertisers.

The Government has also announced today (TUESDAY) it is to take action to protect children from online material. It has appointed psychologist Dr Tanya Byron to lead a study into what action needs to be taken.

User Vision say all three sites have a “social and corporate responsibility” to replace at least one-in-50 views of the adverts that occupy highly visible spaces on social networking sites with a warning about online safety on the profiles of their members who are under 18.

Emma Kirk, strategic director of User Vision, said: “All three of these hugely popular social networking websites should be doing more to protect the young people using their sites. They have a social and corporate responsibility to do so.

“We were particularly concerned to find that the privacy policy and the information on staying safe were presented by two of the three sites in almost identical ways whether we joined as adults or when a child signed-up.

“Security on social networking sites is complex and it’s often all or nothing. For example on Bebo you can have open or closed profile, but nothing in between.

“As kids often sign up to these sites to get as many friends as possible, security needs to be presented in a usable way that kids will understand so they immediately understand the issues and situations they’re putting themselves into.”

During the User Vision evaluation, one of the team signed up to MySpace giving only his name and city location yet almost every morning he found at least three emails from people he did not know asking to be his MySpace “friend”.

In another example of quite how many friends someone can accumulate on MySpace, the singer Lily Allen has a running total of nearly 420,000 friends.

User Vision found that Facebook had offered the least effective privacy policy in terms of usability. Whether someone signed in as an adult, a college student or a child the terms of use and privacy policy were the same – all required the user to click a link to read more about privacy.

There was no additional or different text for children that highlights how important this information is.

Emma Kirk said: “Within the Facebook privacy policy there is a section on the safe use of the site which has a good question and answer section. The problem we have identified is it’s just not visible enough so is unlikely ever to be read by someone under the age of 16.”

On Bebo, the User Vision team found that there was an option for new users to hide their age, but no explanation for children to show why this would be important.

The Bebo privacy policy is tucked away at the bottom of the screen below a “save & continue” button, leading User Vision to conclude few users would see it or read on.

However, once a Bebo user begins to edit – or personalise – their profile the site automatically produces clear safety tips for the under 21s and also makes clear that their age will not be displayed publicly if they are under 18.

Emma Kirk added: “What we found surprising about Bebo was that it had gone to the lengths of filming a high quality video on privacy, but it is hidden in a link at the bottom of the page that very few children would ever see.”

User Vision’s evaluation found that MySpace was similar to Facebook in not giving any prominent security warnings to children users. It was the only one of the three social networking sites to ask users to give their postcode, a policy Emma Kirk said raised particular security and privacy questions especially for children.

However, at the stage where a new user on MySpace reaches the point of being encouraged to upload some photographs there is a series of warnings given about the risks.

Emma Kirk said: “Children and young adults in their teens aren’t overly concerned with their information privacy. So the issue here may not be how these sites word their privacy policies but rather one of making privacy a concept that is accessible to teenagers.

“Individually targeted advertising is becoming an increasingly prevalent tactic on the web, so social networking sites could target their privacy advertising at their users they know to be under 18.

“At the end of the day, choice would still be with the user – but at least they would be better informed.”

ENDS

For more information contact: Sarah Lee :: 0131 225 3875 :: 077 66 542110 :: sarah@hottinroof.co.uk

ABOUT USER VISION

User Vision is one of Europe’s leading independent user experience consultancies, specialising in usability testing, web accessibility, eye tracking, user needs assessments and expert usability evaluations. The company tests and improves usability across many platforms including websites, interactive TV, software, mobile phones and keyboards. As well as offline advertising, TV commercials, shop layouts and computer games.

At the heart of User Vision’s work lies the basic concept that a product that is easy to use gives a business competitive advantage. The company takes a straightforward, practical approach to user needs analysis, problem solving and usability testing, leading to effective design solutions.

Launched in 2000, User Vision has grown organically and remains free from venture capital. The company has pioneered usability and accessibility for many years working with organisations like the BBC, HSBC, Nokia and the DTI. Operating internationally in Dubai, Spain, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, the UK and Ireland, User Vision is a powerful, independent force in usability and accessibility.

Published on: 12:00AM on 13th December 2007