It’s not just teenagers, college kids and adults on Facebook, MySpace, and Friendster.  “Tweens,” and even younger kids, are curious about the social networking sites that they see their older siblings and parents participating in.

Facebook and MySpace require registered users to be at least 13 years old but we all know that it’s easy for a child to pretend to be older when they sign up for an account.  Researchers have confirmed that a growing number of children are ignoring the age requirement  -  or using social networking sites designed for younger children.

In two surveys reported in 2009 by Pew Internet Research — of 700 and 935 teens, respectively – 38% of respondents ages 12 to 14 said they had an online profile on some website.

Sixty-one percent of those in the study, ages 12 to 17, said they use social-networking sites to send messages to friends, and 42% said they do so daily. The data in the study was from 2006, so one can safely assume those numbers are higher in 2009.

Are children younger than 12 years old using social networking sites?  “Of course they are,” said Amanda Lenhart, a researcher at Pew and one of the report’s authors. “They’re using them because that’s where their social world is. Because there’s no effective way to age-verify … children very quickly realize, ‘I just say I’m 14 years old, and they’ll let me use this.’ ”

Many parents also worry that younger users of social networking sites could be targets for online predators. While there are some concerns that kids aren’t mature enough to make good decisions about their privacy, most are savvy enough by their early teens to know what, and who, to avoid. Younger children need more parental supervision.

Alternately, a growing number of networking sites are geared specifically toward kids under 13. Sites such as Disney’s Club Penguin — mainly a game site, but with limited social functions — WebKinz and Whyville feature more restricted and supervised networking. These kids-oriented sites are in a ways a  training ground for future use of mainstream social networks, such as MySpace and Facebook.

See a List of Social Networking Sites