An astonishing 59 per cent of eight to 17-year-olds use social networking sites to make new friends, according to the latest research from Ofcom, with nearly half of that age range having an online profile.

Ofcom, the independent regulator and competition authority for the UK communications industries, found a worrying proportion of parents were not monitoring their child’s internet usage.

Indeed, although 33 per cent of parents confessed that they did not set any rules for their children’s social networking habits, 43 per cent of children insisted that they were not offered guidance.

Bebo babies

Bebo was the most popular social networking site with the young: 63 per cent of those polled had an account with the service – which is skewed towards that demographic. More than a third of children between eight and 17 had a MySpace profile and just less than one in five had joined Facebook.

Perhaps the most worrying is the fact that 25 per cent of eight to 11-year-olds had some form of social networking profile.

Very different lives

"Social networks are clearly a very important part of people's lives and are having an impact on how people live their lives," said James Thickett, director of market research at Ofcom.

"Children's lives are very different from what they were 20 years ago. Social networks are a way of creating a social bond."

“While people are aware of the status of their profile, there is a general lack of awareness of the issues attached to them around privacy and safety.

"People put aside concerns about privacy and safety, believing they have been taken care of by someone else."