Dr. Nicole Beurkens
It’s becoming harder and harder to stay connected in the digital age without using social media, and even our kids are beginning to face this pressure. Since 2019, children aged 8-18 have increased their overall device usage by over 17% – much of which has come from an increase in social media use.
These changes can be worrisome for parents, since most social media apps are not designed for children under 13 and can expose them to inappropriate and dangerous content. Especially for younger kids, popular social apps like Instagram and TikTok can contain misinformation and graphic content that they have no way to identify or understand. As parents, we have to keep all of this in mind, along with many other factors, when we finally decide: Is my child ready for social media?
What is the “right” age for social media?
Social media networks advertise that they require a minimum age of 13 for use of their platforms. However, this definitely doesn’t mean that every 13-year-old should immediately jump into the world of social media! It’s true that no child under 13 should be using these apps, but their maturity, level of development, and track record of responsibility all play a role in their readiness for social media use once they reach their teens.
As parents, we can observe these qualities in our kids, in addition to how well they follow instructions and handle relationships, expectations, and communication, to decide if they are ready for social networks at 13 or if we should work with them to develop those skills first.
How do I know if my child is ready for social media?
While the general factors outlined above can be a great way for us to identify whether our children are ready to use social media, there are also a few more distinct ways that we can tell.
1. Your child has developed their abstract thinking skills
This is one of the most important factors when talking about social media readiness in your child. Until about age 11, most children still exercise almost exclusively concrete thinking. This means that they use information available to them to make a decision in the moment, without thinking about potential consequences. This is completely normal and healthy for younger kids; after all, thinking about problems from multiple angles and projecting the impact of our decisions far into the future is a complex skill!
However, the permanent nature of the internet and the long-lasting consequences of everything we upload means that kids who haven’t yet proven themselves as capable abstract thinkers should stay away from social media.
2. Your child has a healthy level of self-esteem
Social media apps are full of “influencers” and regular people who spend their time preparing professional-quality photos to post under the guise of casual snapshots of their lives. This can quickly lead to kids developing a negative image of themselves because most of what they see on social media projects that we should look flawless the second we wake up in the morning.
If your child is already confident in their body, has a positive self-image, and isn’t easily swayed by peers, it’s more likely that they’ll be less fazed by the constant deluge of perfect-looking pictures they encounter on social media.
3. They can demonstrate good offline social skills
Your child’s real-life social and communication skills are also an important gauge for their ability to appropriately use social media. If your child can hold a conversation with a non-parent adult, appropriately manages their friendships, and generally acts respectfully around others, they are likely capable of being responsible and respectful online too.
What are some signs that my child isn’t ready for social media?
It’s very important that your child is succeeding in all of the above areas before they get their first social media account, but there are a variety of other reasons you might want to hold off.
If your child struggles with anxiety, depression, or mood regulation, that can be a sign that you need to work through those issues before they start using social media.
Similarly, if your child has a hard time following rules or is easily swayed by their peers, it’s more likely that they will be irresponsible online. It’s also crucial that your lines of communication are open with your child, and that they feel comfortable coming to you with questions about anything that troubles them. If this isn’t yet the case, try cultivating your relationship with your child and create a firm sense of trust before letting them dive into the often-confusing world of social media.
I found out that my child has a secret social media account – what do I do?
If your child has created a social media account without you knowing, it’s time to have a direct and loving conversation with them about their technology use and your expectations. Make sure that you listen to them just as much as you expect them to listen to you, and try to gain a fuller understanding of their choices. Talk with them about the dangers of social media overuse, and come up with a plan to ensure they engage with social media in a constructive and safe way.
Implement or revisit existing parental controls settings to keep an eye on their internet activity while they learn how to be more responsible and appropriate online. I always recommend Qustodio for this purpose, because it easily allows you set time and content restrictions for every child in the family. You can also monitor their social media use in order to keep them safe online and help them develop healthy electronics use habits.
Introducing your child to social media is a process. Just like any other aspect of parenting, it’s important to be open with your child and work together with them to set healthy boundaries and expectations for their electronics use. Remember that setting them up with their first account isn’t the end of the journey. Check in with them from time to time to make sure that they feel good about the way they use technology, and be direct about any concerns you might have should they arise. This article on digital resilience contains helpful tips and reminders to help build social and emotional literacy while navigating social media with your children.
As parents, our most important goal is to provide our children with learning experiences that help them become healthy and responsible adults. Social media has the potential to be a helpful learning experience when introduced and supported in appropriate ways.