When is it okay to introduce social media to kids?

Categories: Technology

This post was written by kids and tech expert, Dr Kristy Goodwin.

“You’re the worst Mum in the world. I’m the only person in my whole class who isn’t allowed an Instagram account. You’re ruining my life!”

This is a common conversation that many parents are having with their tweens. Actually, let me clarify, it’s not a conversation, it’s often a tirade of abuse from your 10-year-old daughter, claiming that her social life will be ruined if she’s excluded from social media.

Children at increasingly younger and younger ages are pleading with their parents to allow them to set up a social media account. And often it’s much earlier than the legal age of 13 years!

This isn’t even considering the children who have set up their own social media accounts, without their parents knowing. And we know that there are a lot of these in existence. (In fact, some articles have suggested that as many as three-quarters of children aged 10-12 years have social media accounts, despite being below the legal age limit.)

Parents feel confused and conflicted about what’s the right thing to do.

On one hand, they’re concerned about alienating their kids if they don’t allow them to set up social media accounts (especially when all of their peer group claim to have their own accounts. Insider information- sometimes kids try and outsmart you and they collude and try and convince their parents that everyone else has an account when that’s far from the truth!). Many parents accept that digital abstinence is no longer a viable option. On the other hand, they’re equally as afraid of allowing their child to set up an account (because of fears associated with cyber-bullying, exposure to possible pedophiles and pornography, not to mention addiction concerns and personal identity and body image worries).

“Finding the ‘right’ age to introduce social media to kids a common digital dilemma facing modern parents.”

What are the risks?

Prematurely dunking young kids into the social media world can be catastrophic! Kids, both tweens, and teenagers often lack the social, emotional and psychological skills needed to cope with the demands posed by the incessant buzzing, comments and risks associated with social media. In fact, we know that the part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, that allows kids to manage their high-order thinking skills that they need to use when engaged with social media is not fully developed (research suggest it’s the early twenties for females and late twenties for males). Therefore, they don’t have the cognitive capacity to effectively manage the demands of social media. For example, they may not have the impulse-control skills they need to decide not to post a nasty comment on Facebook, or share a rude photo on Instagram.

“Because kids’ prefrontal cortex isn’t fully developed, they don’t have the cognitive capacity to effectively manage the demands of social media.”

Kids, especially if they’re still forming their personal identity can be susceptible to the bombardment of sexualised images that proliferate social media sites and apps. Kids start to assume that in order to be liked and accepted amongst their peer group, that they need to share sexualised images. This is why, in some instances, we’re seeing primary school children taking selfies in their underwear and sharing them on Instagram! Kids are also using apps like Musical.ly to create, share and discover short 15-second music videos with other users. Young girls, especially under 13 years of age, are flocking to this app and psychologists are concerned that sexually provocative videos are being shared and gain more traction because they garner more likes and comments.

There is a preponderance of cyber-safety issues when kids are using social media apps and websites. Catfishing is a term used to describe when a person poses as someone else in order to manipulate or deceive victims. In recent times, charges were laid against an Australian man who committed 931 child sex-related crimes when he posed online as Justin Bieber. In some instances, children as young as 8 were convinced that they were conversing with Justin Bieber and for their chance to win a 10-minute phone call with the star, they needed to send nude photos via private message on a social media site. In some instances, children agreed to meet with the predator at a physical location. Again, our kids do not have the brain architecture, cognitive skills and life experience that they need to make informed decisions.

“In many instances, our kids are playing in digital playgrounds and there are no adults on duty!”

Is social media ‘bad’ for kids?

In a nutshell, no social media isn’t necessarily ‘bad’ for kids. If it’s introduced at the ‘right’ age, carefully monitored by parents and balanced with real, off-screen relationships, then social media can be a meaningful communication tool for our teenagers. Note, I said teenagers (read below to find out more about why I state this age range).

Social media can be a wonderful way to cater for our teenagers’ need for social connection. One of our basic human needs is to feel like we belong. Whilst many parents believe that social media relationships are very superficial and lack substance (there’s no doubt that some are), this isn’t necessarily the case for kids. When used appropriately and intentionally, social media can be a wonderful way for teens to connect. They can develop a sense of belonging. They can build relationships.

I’m not denying that there are also inherent risks of teens using social media. Anxiety and depression concerns associated with vulnerable kids using social media have been examined in some research.

In essence, like any technology, social media is merely a tool. It’s neither good nor bad. It really depends on how it’s used, with whom it’s used, when it’s used, where it’s used and what’s used. My concern with social media is that children are being dunked in the social media world prematurely before they’re socially and emotionally ready.

“My concern with social media is that children are being dunked in the social media world prematurely, before they’re socially and emotionally ready.”

So when is the ‘right’ age to introduce social media to kids?

There’s no ‘right’, specific chronological age that’s appropriate to introduce social media to kids. It really depends on each child’s social and emotional maturity levels. It also depends on their capacity to follow rules and to be responsible.

As we know, kids all develop at different paces. It’s also true that kids can easily become ostracised from their peer group if they’re not using social media. However, this isn’t reason enough to introduce kids to social media. Remember, your job as a parent is to protect and keep your child safe. It’s not to win approval by your child. Sometimes your children won’t like your decisions. Sometimes they’ll even tell you you’re the worst parent in the world and they hate you. And I think we must be okay with that- in fact, I suggest you re-frame it as a criticism and see it as a sign that you’re doing a good job as a parent. Their safety and well-being must be our priority.

In my parent seminars, I often share this powerful analogy to help guide parents as to when to introduce their kids to social media. I ask, would you feel comfortable allowing your child to travel alone to the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) on public transport and then playing a video on the screen to a packed house at the MCG, without your approval? If this thought makes you feel nervous or uneasy, it’s a clear sign that your child isn’t ready for social media.

This type of public broadcasting is exactly what kids are doing when they share or comment on social media. They’re curating a digital footprint. And if they’re sharing inappropriate content on social media, it has the potential to be instantly and quickly disseminated. And as we all know, kids make mistakes- it’s a rite of passage. But now their mistakes have digital DNA attached and in some instances, this can have catastrophic and even legal consequences, as has been frequently reported in the media.

When to introduce social media

I’m often asked about this in parent seminars- “Is it okay if I let my 10 year old set up an Instagram account? All her friends use it and I don’t want her ostracised.”

My answer? No.


// You’re teaching your child that it’s okay to break rules and even the law (most social media sites legally require users to be 13 years to set up an account).

// Young kids, especially pre-teens don’t typically have the skills they need to manage and cope with the demands of social media (in fact, it’s become very obvious that many adults lack the skills to use social media effectively).

// Social media often demands that our kids are ‘always on’. They find it hard to switch off devices or leave them switched on at night near their beds so that they don’t miss an alert or notification.

// Social media can also teach them to seek external validation and approval and it can expose them to all kinds of risks.

My tips for introducing social media to kids

// Delay the introduction of social media where you can. Get in early and collaborate with your child’s friends’ parents and collectively decide to wait to introduce social media. Some schools have implemented policies where they tell families that children shouldn’t be using social media- this often makes it easier for families to then implement and there’s consistency amongst their peer group as it’s ‘school rules’.

// Where possible, I strongly encourage parents to delay the introduction of social media until your child is at least 13, where possible. I know that is a very challenging task for parents to do this (especially when kids tell you they’re the *only* person at school who’s not using social media), but it’s so important to wait until our children are AT LEAST legally able to use social media before it’s formally introduced.

Bonus social media tips

Here are a couple of considerations or ideas for making the use of social media a positive experience for your child if/when they’re ready to use it:

// When used appropriately and with parental guidance (especially in the early months) social media can be a positive experience for our teenagers. It helps them to feel the 3 Cs: (i) connected (a core human desire, especially as they enter adolescence), (ii) control (like they have some control over the image they’re portraying online and the interactions they’re having) and (iii) competent (they get to share their highlight reel so they usually share their positive experiences).

// Your involvement is critical. Just like “real-life” social skills, our kids don’t learn how to use social media by osmosis. They need parental guidance and involvement and explicit instruction on how to interact online (in fact, I think a lot of adults are still learning this skill too). This requires active parent participation and supervision.

// Just like off-screen misdemeanours, remember that your child WILL make mistakes online. We all made mistakes growing up (it’s almost like a rite of passage), but our mistakes didn’t have digital-DNA attached. Don’t punish or ridicule your child if/when they make a mistake with social media. Teach them how to learn from their mistake. Encourage them to come to you if they make a mistake with social media. One of the biggest concerns facing our kids today is the looming threat that if they make a mistake online, they’re too afraid to report it to their parents as they’re worried that the technology will be banned.

// Before allowing your children to set up social media accounts is to determine if they’re socially and emotionally ready to use social media.  Social media can also teach kids, who are often very impressionable, to seek external validation and approval and it can expose them to all kinds of risks. They only feel as good as the number of likes, comments or shares that they receive. This can have catastrophic consequences on their sense of identity, self-esteem. If social media isn’t carefully used with kids, especially teenagers, they can potentially develop narcissistic tendencies and anxiety.

// Remind your child that their social media use will leave digital DNA. Without the skill of hindsight, it’s often very difficult for children to really grasp the magnitude and permanence of social media (kids and teens are often very emotional and often act on emotion, rather than logic- remember their prefrontal cortex which they need to manage their high-order thinking skills is not fully developed!). Ask them, to run what they’d share on social media through a few tests: (i) Would you be happy if your Mum/Dad saw this post? (ii) Would you be proud if your grandmother/principal saw this post? (iii) Would you be willing to stand up at a football stadium like the MCG and share this post with a full house (remember, this is in essence what we’re potentially doing when we share something online)?

// Establish very clear rules about WHAT social media apps your child can/can’t use. Not all social media apps are created equal so feel comfortable with the apps that they’re using and be willing to use them with your child. An important note here, Instagram is not a safer alternative to Facebook. When I deliver my parent seminars many parents are shocked to learn that Instagram isn’t a safer or more superior social media site to other social media tools.

// Be aware that many kids set up and allow parents to access decoy social media accounts. These are ‘vanilla’ versions of social media sites where kids share content that they know their parents would approve and then have another account where their ‘juicy’, inappropriate, not-for-parent-eyes content is kept.

// Establish firm rules about WHEN, WHERE and WITH WHOM your child can use social media. Social media often demands that our kids are ‘always on’ because they enter the state of insufficiency. Basically, they never feel complete or ‘done’ because there’s always another post that they can scroll through or comment on.  This makes it hard for kids to switch off and this can develop some unhealthy screen habits if not carefully managed.

// There are mounting concerns that many children and adolescents lack the executive function skills (like impulse control) to manage the incessant interruptions that social media can introduce (from alerts and notifications) and this can impact on their sleep and academic performance.

Bonus tip- insist that bedrooms are tech-free zones and have specific times of the day when social media can be used (so it doesn’t encroach on their study habits and other important activities such as building real relationships and being physically active). They’re much less likely to post nude Instagram pictures in the kitchen.

// Continue to be actively involved with your child’s social media use. I strongly advise that parents initially observe what their child is doing on social media (perhaps have them randomly share a couple of posts on their device). Have informal discussions about what they’re sharing, liking or commenting on. Help them to understand what sort of digital footprint they’re leaving on social media. It’s so important to continue to stay involved with your child’s social media life because you want your child to feel that you’re involved and that they can come to you if/when there’s an incident that they feel ill-equipped to deal with. Kids often try to solve their own digital dilemmas, because they feel as though their parents wouldn’t know how to help them, or because it’s seen as something taboo.