Facebook is facing a backlash from campaigners after announcing it will allow millions of teenagers to open up their profiles to strangers.
The social networking site announced that users aged from 13 to 17 will now be able to switch their settings to share posts with anyone on the internet, rather than just their “friends” or “friends of friends”.
Children’s groups and internet safety experts denounced the move, saying it could leave young people more vulnerable to cyber-bullying.
BeatBullying managing director Anthony Smythe said: “We have concerns this age group can now share information in the public domain.
“Something they think might not be harmful now may come back to haunt them later. This is a move in the wrong direction.”
Jim Gamble, former head of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP), expressed “concern” the move could make youngsters more vulnerable.
He said: “My concern is for young people who haven’t fully formed their opinions or have enough life experience to make judgements about things that might follow them for the rest of their lives.”
The ability of sexual predators to use social media to contact vulnerable young people was underlined earlier this month when full details emerged of how two men from South Yorkshire had abused a string of teenage boys after grooming them online.
Anthony Marsh, 53, from Hatfield, near Doncaster, and Lee Davis, 39, from Conisbrough, near Doncaster, used sites including Facebook, to befriend boys before arranging to meet them when they were sexually abused.
Police forces in the Yorkshire region have also reported an upward trend in crime involving social media amid increasing concern that vulnerable people are being targeted for bullying and harassment.
Facebook’s announcement comes just weeks before internet companies are due to publish proposals to improve protection for young people online. The Government has given companies until the end of October to draw up their plans.
Facebook, which has more than 30 millions users in Britain, argued it was offering more choice to tech-savvy teenagers.
It also stressed that initial privacy settings for teenagers under 18 would automatically be programmed so posts are seen only by friends.
“We take the safety of teens very seriously, so they will see an extra reminder before they can share publicly,” the company said.
It already announced last week that it is removing privacy settings so that anyone can search for a user’s profile.
A spokesman for the National Crime Agency (NCA), which recently assumed responsibility for cybercrime, said: “It’s important that children and young people manage their online use and understand the consequences of what they share online, especially with anything that is available publicly.
“Robust reporting mechanisms and education messages are vital and we continue to encourage users to report any concerns they have to Facebook, or if their concerns are linked to someone’s inappropriate sexual behaviour, to the NCA.
“The NCA welcomes the announcement made by Facebook in relation to the default sharing setting for teens joining Facebook being changed to “Friends”, instead of “Friends of friends”.
“This will help young people understand the need to manage their privacy settings carefully and to control who they share their information with.”
The spokesman said CEOP, which is now part of the new crime agency, had a “strong working relationship with Facebook and works with them to ensure children and young people are as safe as they can be when using the platform”.