The majority of Europe's youngsters who go online are regular users of social networking sites such as Facebook, according to a recent Eurobarometer poll.
According to EU data, social networking sites currently have 50 million European users, most of whom are children, teenagers or young people.
The dangers posed by social networks to children are potentially great. Not only do they speed up communication, they also allow users to be located more easily, explains a report issued by ENISA, the EU agency for network and information security.
Maps provided on mobile phones, for example, allow users to find and locate their friends and get directions to places, but this poses new threats to privacy or even security, the agency warned.
European teenagers are barely aware of the privacy issues raised by such websites, according to EU figures, and 50% of them do not hesitate to give out personal information on the Web, which can remain online forever and can often be seen by anybody.
In 1999, EU leaders began forging agreements to promote safer use of the Internet, in particular its use by under-18s.
Ten years on and the European Commission is showing an increased interest in protecting children online, especially since the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty has afforded lawmakers greater decision-making powers on criminal law enforcement.
Faced with this widespread social phenomenon, the Commission has shown an increased interest in protecting citizens and consumers' privacy. Social networking websites have been singled out on many occasions as potentially dangerous for inexpert users.
Although social networks have shown a willingness to address privacy issues, the Commission is worried about many shortfalls which still prevent minors on social networking platforms from having a completely safe experience, according to a report published by the EU executive in February 2010.
To address naive usage of social networks, the EU institutions launched a 'Think Before You Post' campaign.
"If we want children to think before they post, social networking companies should post the right information using the right language," underlined EU Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship Commissioner Viviane Reding.
Facebook, which is the biggest social network in Europe, has come under attack for not fully protecting minors whose profiles become accessible by default (EurActiv 09/02/10).
Across the pond, US senators have called on Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's founder and chief executive, to reverse changes to the site made in April 2010 that allow users' information to be shared more widely and with third-party websites.
Measures against child pornography online
The EU faces internal strife on a month-old proposal to block access to child pornography on the Internet (EurActiv 30/03/10).
"If the police can confiscate leaflets, books, and videos with child pornography, it should also be able to shut down sites. The Internet is not a safe haven for criminals," argued Cecilia Malmström, the EU commissioner for home affairs.
However, Malmström has come under fire from many factions in the EU, most notably German MEPs who would prefer an outright ban on pornographic content of children.
"I expect a broad debate in the upcoming discussions in which I shall be representing the principle of 'removing [child porn sites] instead of blocking' and lobbying for as broad support as possible in the Council and in the European Parliament," said German Justice Minister Sabine Schnarrenberger.
MEPs have long been calling for online grooming to be outlawed. Grooming refers to adults who deliberately try to befriend children online to sexually abuse them at a later stage.
"'Grooming' and paedophile chat rooms on the Internet should be criminalised and sex crimes should be subject to extraterritorial legislation," the European Parliament said in a 2009 report.
The MEPs' report - which called for the criminalisation of "all types of sexual abuse of children" including 'grooming' (the act of soliciting children for sexual purposes) - was approved with 591 votes in favour, two against and six abstentions.
Malmström's recent proposal to tackle child pornography would criminalise "new forms of sexual abuse and exploitation facilitated by the use of the Internet," such as grooming or viewing child pornography without downloading the incriminating files.
Winding road towards an EU cyberwatchdog
In addition, EU ministers meeting in April 2010 asked the European Commission to assess whether it should set up a centralised agency on tackling cybercrime to prevent online fraud and child pornography.
Previously, monitoring of online fraud and malicious content was carried out by the European Network and Information Security Agency (ENISA), located on the Greek island of Heraklion, the home of the Greek Foundation of Research and Technology.
The decision to put ENISA on Heraklion caused many problems and has attracted widespread criticism.
"Heraklion is not a capital city and flight schedules, especially in winter, are limited, requiring a stopover in another city (usually Athens). Travel time is between seven to 10 hours each way, which results in an average time of up to three days for each event or meeting," read a critical report by a panel of experts appointed by the Commission to assess the island's suitability for the agency.
Upcoming efforts to set up a new agency against online fraud and child pornography will likely experience a few stumbling blocks as traditionally large member states, like Germany, France and the United Kingdom, have opposed the establishment of an agency that would tread on the toes of operations in their own country.
Though observers doubt that their position will have changed by the time the EU releases a proposal on the centre late this year, the outcome of negotiations on the agency remains to be seen.