For the media

How old should kids be to use social media?

By Jen Spengler | October 12, 2022
Friends using their phones

By Jen Spengler, a health and wellness writer for Sharp Health News and a content editor with Sharp HealthCare.

My daughter, 14, is not yet on social media — at least, as far as I know. But based on our discussions and random checks of her phone, my husband and I honestly believe she only has access to social media channels when she’s with her friends or when videos and screenshots are shared with her via text. She’d really like for that to change.

However, we have several concerns about granting her permission to sign up for social media apps. These range from a fear of dependence on her smartphone and about her safety while on it, to worries about how exposure to the social media channels popular among teens will affect her mental health and self-confidence. It’s also incredibly troubling that social media platforms have become an outlet for purchasing illicit drugs.

So, when she asks how old she needs to be before we will allow her to sign up for social media accounts, we struggle to come up with a definitive answer.

Concerns surrounding social media
It’s important to note that our fears about her participation in social media are not without merit. A study by the Pew Research Center found 35% of teens say they are using at least one social platform “almost constantly.” And 58% of teen girls using social media say it would be difficult to give it up.

Additional research found 40% of kids in grades 4 to 8 reported they connected or chatted online with a stranger. One in three young people in 30 countries said they have been a victim of online bullying. Of those who were bullied online, over 60% report it was because of their appearance.

What’s more, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) reports adolescents who experienced cyberbullying had an increased risk of suicidal thoughts or attempts. The NIH also found that when it comes to purchasing drugs, social media apps provide a “quick, convenient method for connecting buyer and seller.”

With all this in mind, it’s very tempting to try to keep our daughter offline until she turns 18. But according to Dr. Kelsey Bradshaw, a clinical child psychologist with Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital, we may be approaching the issue from the wrong angle. He advises that rather than deciding whether or not a child is ready for social media based solely on their chronological age, it’s best to consider their developmental level and maturity.

“Tailor your approach to each child,” Dr. Bradshaw says. “As with other areas of parenting, what works for one child won't necessarily work for another, depending on their ages, personalities and needs.”

Methods to keep children safe
Dr. Bradshaw recommends taking a general approach for mentoring children on their use of technology, from screen time limits to social media use. Parents can start with a basic introduction to technology and related platforms and move toward empowering children to making their own decisions on safe and balanced use.

Teach yourself the ins and outs of the platforms before agreeing to allowing your child to create an account and be aware of each apps’ user age recommendations. For example, most apps, including Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok, recommend users be at least 13.

“Consider the age limits set by the developers,” Dr. Bradshaw says. “But remember that you know your child best and should consider their ability to be safe.”

Dr. Bradshaw also suggests parents:

  • Set app privacy levels to the most restrictive to prevent what strangers can see and who can contact your children. “And check the privacy settings regularly, as platforms can update their policies and these may get reset,” he says.

  • Take time to consider ground rules first and then involve your child in the discussion before setting restrictions. “Try to give your child some ownership to help build their own responsibility and critical thinking,” Dr. Bradshaw says. “Keep the idea of balance at the forefront.”

  • Work to encourage your child to consider kindness in their online presence, to think twice before posting, and to consider how they will feel if you or other adults they respect see their content or messages. “Discuss the concept of the digital footprint,” he says. “As we get older, we may find ourselves cringing at things we wore, said or did at younger ages. Things can be online forever and can come back into light or even be used against you.”

  • Keep computers in public areas of the house — avoid use of tablets, laptops and smartphones in bedrooms — and set the amount of screen time you’ll permit each day. “You can create a family media use plan on the American Academy of Pediatrics website,” Dr. Bradshaw says.

  • Discuss avoiding communication with strangers and consider using a trusted security app with parental controls on your child’s device. “Enable all safety features that prevent children from being exposed to inappropriate content online or being contacted by a stranger and require children to ask your permission before installing an app,” he says.

  • Learn the lingo. “Kids have a language of their own when it comes to communicating online,” Dr. Bradshaw says. “Make sure you know what they’re talking about — or ask.”

  • Consider requesting access to their account credentials. “This can help you check for unapproved activities, such as adding suspicious friends, receiving questionable messages or posting unkind content,” Dr. Bradshaw advises.

When it comes to teens, Dr. Bradshaw says you may consider a compromise. Rather than having access to their account, you might instead ask them to add you as a friend on social media platforms so you can monitor their activities via your own account.

“Discuss the process for demonstrating responsibility so you can reduce oversight and empower them to make safe and balanced choices,” he says. “Part of raising a teen is trusting them and giving them privacy. Nobody wants to always be monitored.”

How to manage any concerns
Above all, Dr. Bradshaw advises that parents talk with children about their concerns regarding social media use, parents’ expectations about how it will be used, and what kids should do if they have a negative or scary experience online. “You want to have an open line of communication so that if something does happen, they speak to you about it.”

Parents should also watch for signs of trouble, which could be the result of social media use or other stressors in kids’ and teens’ lives:

  • Complaints they're bored or unhappy when they don't have access to technology

  • Tantrums or resistance to screen time limits

  • Changes in school performance, ability to concentrate, or sleep or eating habits

  • Reduced interest in activities or face-to-face communication with parents or peers

  • Mood swings or sustained sadness, anxiety, irritability or anger

  • Substance use

“Technology is here and we need to learn to co-exist,” Dr. Bradshaw reminds us. Moreover, our daughter has demonstrated that she can be kind, responsible and cautious in other areas of her life. Perhaps it‘s time we stop fretting over what age she should be to use social media and instead focus on how we can help her use it safely.

Learn more about parenting; get the latest health and wellness news, trends and patient stories from Sharp Health News.

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