Predators prowling social networks have kept parents awake at night for over a decade. The knowledge that only a few clicks separate our children from criminals of all sorts has resulted in a sort of paranoia – “stranger danger” is taught in IT classes, ferocious parental controls are put in place on family computers, and every few months a mothers’ group will insist Facebook installs a panic button on their toolbar.

But there’s another, arguably more immediate and more destructive peril which our children are facing from social media and social networks.

The marketing of alcohol on television and the radio has been curtailed significantly. No adverts for any sort of booze can appear on screens before a certain time in most countries, and in some states the advertising of alcohol is forbidden altogether. However, the global nature of social media (and the lack of a language barrier between Britain and English-speaking North America) means that alcohol adverts can permeate over national borders and onto the computer screens of our little ones.

The minimum age for most of social media is 13, yet there’s nothing stopping a younger child from signing up. All you need is an e-mail address. And at the age of 13 or younger, messages encouraging alcohol misuse are going to be destructive. It isn’t just the ads, either. In the UK, 37% of 13-15 year olds said that they’d seen photos of their friends drunk on Facebook.

Moves to clear social network of alcohol adverts have already begun in the United Kingdom, where the charity Alcohol Concern accuses alcohol firms of targeting youngsters with attractive games, competitions and photos of drink-fuelled raves on their websites and social media presences. The charity also criticises “viral” marketing, which relies on a video clip or web page being voluntarily passed around on social media. It is inevitable that underage users will encounter this sort of untargeted commercial.

Chief Executive of Alcohol Concern, Don Shenker, says that the alcohol industry is just like any other in maximising exposure and advertising potential through social media, and that most of the leading alcohol companies (just like a car manufacturer, clothes retailer or moving company) have some sort of page or presence on Twitter and Facebook.

“[The alcohol industry has] very effectively taken advantage of internet technology as a means of promoting its products,” he said. “Many Facebook groups about drinks also mirror official drinks industry advertising and make use of official drinks logos. Much of this can be easily accessed by users of any age.

“The sharing of pro-drinking messages in this way fuels the normalisation of alcohol – the more people who are regularly exposed to images and descriptions of excessive consumption, the more normal and acceptable this behaviour appears.”

The Portman Group, the alcohol watchdog which oversees the industry in the UK, has denied the allegations and says that Alcohol Concern has been being “misleading”. Sarah Hanratty, a spokesperson for the Portman Group, said: ““It is entirely misleading to suggest that alcohol marketing is being targeted at under 18s – the UK already has some of the strictest rules in place around digital media to prevent alcohol being marketed to children or in a way that might appeal to them.

“It is perfectly legitimate for drinks companies to use social media to market their products to adult consumers provided there are clear safeguards in place – which there are.”

But there aren’t. The crux of the problem rests with age verification systems. It’s nearly impossible to accurately determine the age of the end user of a website or service. At the moment, the best system is to ask for a date of birth on the front page of a website – it doesn’t take a child long to work out how to look 18 or 21 to a computer. It won’t be long before the paranoia about pornography, perverts and prostitution turns its attention to kids seeing adverts for other adult-only products.