Forget when to let your child start dating — when to let them start using social media is the new debate for modern parenting. It’s an important decision, but knowing when the time is right can be daunting. So, how young is too young to use social media? Read on for helpful tips to guide you through.
Pros and cons of social media for kids
Social media is a double-edged sword. Here are some benefits and drawbacks to consider:
Friendship and support: There’s a tendency to think of relationships formed on social media as superficial and less valuable. But research has shown that youth can and do form close, meaningful friendships online. Those relationships can be a vital source of support for kids.
Identity affirmation: Social media can be a lifeline for kids with marginalized identities — including racial, ethnic, sexual and gender minorities, and disabilities. Exposure to peers and adult role models who share their identity goes a long way toward helping marginalized youth feel less alone. In addition, friendships formed online with peers who understand what they’re going through can help kids maneuver adversity.
Diversity: Social media allows users to interact with a diverse peer group, exposing them to a broad range of people and ideas. This exposure is a valuable way to develop empathy for people from different backgrounds.
Learning to become a good digital citizen: While you have a say on when, if, and how your child uses social media, that won’t always be the case. Soon enough, they’ll be an adult navigating an increasingly digital world. There’s value in letting them learn the ropes while they’re still under your supervision and you can guide them through any potential missteps.
Exposure to risky behavior: Studies show that exposure to risky behavior in media, such as alcohol and tobacco use, is associated with adolescents taking up those behaviors. (That’s why TV and movies are sometimes referred to as “superpeers.”) Increasingly, evidence suggests that this effect is equally strong on social media.
Increased reach of advertising: Ad targeting means your child is likely to be flooded with marketing aimed squarely at their demographic. While traditional media such as TV is governed by laws that protect kids from exposure to alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana advertisements, the landscape is much murkier on social media — particularly when it comes to the reach of influencers. What happens if your child’s favorite YouTube star is sponsored by a vaping company? In a 2020 study about e-cigarette brands and influencers, researchers found that 75% of the influencers did not restrict youth access to their promotional content on Instagram.
Dangerous trends: You’ve probably heard about the rise in dangerous viral trends. (Tide Pods, anyone?) TikTok in particular has become a home for these risky crazes. While some online trends are harmless, such as dance challenges, others can pose threats to your child’s safety. Kids take part in these trends for clout and online validation, at the risk of injuries, property damage, or even death.
Risk of dependency: At puberty, children begin to crave attention from peers. At the same time, their brains haven’t fully developed the ability to inhibit behavior and resist temptation. This makes them especially vulnerable to the pull of social media. In fact, research shows over 50% of teens report at least one symptom of clinical dependency on social media.
What to consider before your child uses social media
As you decide when to let your child use social media, consider both their age and maturity level.
How young is too young to use social media? Most social media platforms require a user to be at least 13, but not all parents abide by this. Some research indicates that upward of 50% of parents allow their preteen to use some form of social media. (Note that signing up before age 13 requires fibbing.)
On the other hand, there’s no reason you must let your child open accounts the minute they turn 13. Take into account your child’s individual circumstances and make a decision that feels right to you. If your kid struggles with their peers having social media before they do, check out this helpful guide.
When a child is ready for social media isn’t just a matter of their calendar age. Kids mature at different rates. Be honest with yourself when you consider whether your child is capable of handling the risks and responsibilities of social media.
Taking the plunge and letting your child go online
Once you’ve decided it’s time to let your child use social media, it’s worth taking the time to approach the transition thoughtfully. Here are a few points to keep in mind:
It’s not all-or-nothing
While your child might be eager to jump in, signing up for multiple social media platforms at once could be overwhelming. Consider starting with one platform and letting your child adjust to the rules and boundaries you instill around social media use. When they’re ready, they can sign up for another platform in conversation with you.
Not sure how to set up those rules and boundaries? A digital device contract is a great way to set your child up for success and establish clear expectations when they’re ready to start using social media.
Choosing the right platform
While 13 is the minimum age for most of the major social media sites, there are a few options specifically geared toward younger kids.
Kinzoo is an app made for younger kids. It allows for messaging with friends and family and includes interactive games that can be played inside a chat.
Messenger Kids allows you to create an account for your child directly from your own Facebook account. You must approve people before your child can message with them.
YouTube Kids is a heavily filtered version of YouTube, with robust parental controls that adjust the allowable content based on the user’s age.
There are many social platforms teens may use online, but we’ve covered some of the most common apps or sites below. Use these recommendations as thought-starters if your child wants to sign up for another platform not listed here.
YouTube is rated by Common Sense Media as appropriate for ages 13 and up. While plenty of questionable content abounds, in recent years YouTube has rolled out parental controls that allow for tiered levels of access and things like automatic shut off at bedtime. When your child graduates from YouTube Kids, the controls allow for them to gradually transition into the full site.
Instagram is best for kids 15 and up due to mature content, access to strangers, and vigorous advertising. Although your child can make their account private and control who they follow, that doesn’t stop the algorithms from dishing up potentially iffy suggested content. It’s also a medium which leans into aspirational lifestyles, which can be harmful to self esteem.
TikTok has many of the same pitfalls as Instagram and is therefore generally suited for ages 15 and up. However, there are more parental controls available, as well as built-in filters for younger users. So, with supervision, it’s possible to create a safer experience for your younger teen.
Snapchat is best for older teens. The app’s disappearing texts create a level of secrecy that makes protecting and guiding tweens and younger teens more difficult. It’s also engineered to be highly addictive and can expose kids to mature content if they search for it. There are some parental controls available, but they’re limited. Snapchat is popular among adolescents, which means that your child may feel left out if their friends primarily communicate through Snapchat. If you decide to let your child use it, talk to them about the importance of only accepting messages from people they know in real life, and go through the privacy settings together.
Safety and privacy
As your child embarks on this new phase of digital freedom, consider yourself their guide. Talk to them about digital privacy and what to share (or not) online. Your involvement will not only help keep them safe now, it will set them up for a lifetime of wise online choices.
Following your child’s accounts, regularly looking at their posts together, and using a parental monitoring app like BrightCanary are all great ways to keep an eye on their social media use and help keep them safe.
It’s a good idea to have regular weekly or biweekly check-ins about their social media use, screen time, and how their conversations online make them feel. Look for signs of stress and anxiety in your child’s behavior, which may be exacerbated by social media use.
If you feel strange or intrusive about monitoring your child’s social media use, you should know that the American Psychological Association recommends that parents monitor social media for kids under 15.
You’re not prying. You’re parenting. That involves staying in communication with your child so they can learn healthy coping strategies when they encounter something uncomfortable, understand that social media is a highlight reel and not real life, and (most importantly) learn how and when to step away from social media.
The bottom line
When to let your child start using social media is a big decision, and there are multiple factors to consider. While plenty of opinions and research exist to guide you, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. In the end, you need to do what feels right for you and yourchild.