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Product Reviews

A wider circle of friends, risks

Both children and adults should take steps to minimize social media hazards

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Consumer Reports / July 31, 2011

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Of the 20 million Facebook users under the age of 18 who have actively used the site in the past year, 7.5 million were younger than 13, according to Consumer Reports’ latest State of the Net survey.

Their use essentially violates Facebook’s terms of service, as users are required to be at least 13 years old. Also among these young users, more than 5 million were 10 and under, and their accounts were largely unsupervised by their parents.

Using Facebook presents children and their friends and family with safety, security, and privacy risks. In the past year, the use of Facebook has exposed more than 5 million US households to some type of online abuse including virus infections, identity theft, and - for a million children - bullying, the survey shows.

Social media is just one of the many ways consumers make themselves vulnerable to identity theft or computer viruses. Earlier this year, Consumer Reports surveyed 2,089 online households nationwide and found that one-third of them had experienced a malicious software infection in the previous year. Consumer Reports estimates that malware cost consumers $2.3 billion last year and forced them to replace 1.3 millions PCs.

Increasing dependence on mobile phones has also made consumers more susceptible to threats. Consumer Reports projects that millions of people jeopardize bank information, medical records, and other sensitive data by storing it on their cellphones.

Being social but safeMonitor a child’s account. Parents should join their children’s circle of friends on Facebook. If that’s not feasible with an older teenager, keep tabs on them through their friends or siblings, as did 18 percent of parents surveyed who had 13- to 17-year-olds on Facebook. Parents should delete a preteen’s account or ask Facebook to do so by using its “report an underage child’’ form.

Use privacy controls. Roughly 1 in 5 active adult Facebook users said they hadn’t used Facebook’s privacy controls. Facebook’s privacy controls may not prevent every breach, but they help. Users should set everything they can to be accessible only to those on friend lists. Enabling a public search allows users’ profile picture, friends list, activities, and more to be visible outside of Facebook.

Turn off Instant Personalization. Facebook has been adding sites to its Instant Personalization feature, which automatically links accounts to user-review sites such as TripAdvisor (travel) and Yelp (local businesses). Users who don’t wish to share what cities they have visited with their Facebook friends via TripAdvisor should disable Instant Personalization, which is turned on by default.

Use apps with caution. Facebook says in its privacy policy that it doesn’t share identifiable information with advertisers without permission. But connecting with an app or website allows access to general information. Users should check the list of apps they use and define the settings for each one listed. Decide what information the app can access, when possible, or perhaps eliminate the app altogether. Also, users should limit access to their information that is available to apps that friends use.

Protecting a mobile phoneUse a password or PIN. The easiest way to protect data against loss is with a personal identification number or password on a phone. Most cell and smartphones have an option to do so under settings or security options.

Take advantage of security services. Many smartphone makers offer free security services such as over-the-air backup, remote phone locating, remote phone locking, and erasing of data and account information.

Use caution when downloading apps. Only download apps from recognized sources. Make sure many others have already used it and read reviews before downloading it.

Consumer Reports writes columns, reviews, and ratings on cars, appliances, electronics, and other consumer goods. Previous stories can be found at consumerreports.org.