There is so much life happening around us at home, work and school, but there is also a whole world of activity happening on social media.
For many of us, especially during the pandemic, social media is a lifeline, a place to get the latest news, follow the latest trends and keep in touch with friends and followers. Social media has changed how we communicate, how we work and even how we impact the world.
Even though social media can do a lot of good, it’s not without its downsides. For example, bullying, explicit content and negative effects on mental health.
So, what do you do if your child, tween or teen asks for a social media account? Children love to socialize as they get older and want to keep in touch with friends too. But how do you know if your child is ready to dip their toes into the social media universe? Is it safe? Are they mentally equipped?
Kids are using social media more than ever
Whether we like it or not, kids are spending a lot of time on social media—now, more than ever before. According to results from a survey done by Common Sense Media, a nonprofit research organization, teen and tween social media use increased by 17% from 2019 to 2021. Even more surprising? There was an upswing in use among children ages 8 to 12 for platforms that require users to be at least 13 years old.
Unless companies like Twitter, Twitch, TikTok and Snapchat suddenly disappear, it’s safe to assume that social media is going to be around for a while. That means as a parent you’ll need to understand how these platforms impact your child.
Adeola Adelayo, MD, a practicing psychiatrist with Banner Behavioral Health Hospital, shared the pros and cons of kids using social media, how to determine if your child is ready and how you can help support them.
How social media affects children
Let’s walk through the pros and cons you should be aware of:
- Connection to others: “Probably the best part about social media is its ability to connect people,” Dr. Adelayo said. “No matter where your child’s friends are, they can still connect and interact.” Having access to friends can help maintain relationships. It can also offer a place for support or to connect with others who share likeminded interests and ideas.
- Self-expression: Social media provides a space to express oneself and to have fun doing it, whether that’s through photos, song, dance or comedy.
- Education and broader worldview: It can build knowledge on a range of topics and offer an opportunity to learn from and appreciate different views and perspectives.
- Negative impact on mental health: Many social media users only put out what they want others to see, shielding others from imperfections in their lives. Hiding behind facades, or filters, is not reality, but it can be hard for children (and let’s face it, adults too) to see beyond these curated lives. It’s not surprising this can leave some users feeling depressed, anxious, irritable and bad about themselves.
- Exposure to inappropriate content: Anyone can post and share on social media, which means children could inadvertently see something they shouldn’t or don’t want to, including violent or sexual content. “TikTok is one platform where harmful and inappropriate content is easily accessible,” Dr. Adelayo said. “We’ve seen kids participate in some pretty dangerous viral trends.”
- Cyberbullying: Social media can be a place of support, but it can also be a downright cruel place. Trolling, bullying or ganging up on someone online can have a real impact on adults, but especially kids.
How to know if your child is ready for social media
You may notice that most social media services require users to be at least 13 years of age before they can register. This isn’t an arbitrary number but rather due to data protection laws. There’s nothing concrete to say your child will be ready at 13 for social media, and as we’ve seen with the Common Sense Media survey, it doesn’t stop kids at even younger ages from joining.
When it comes to knowing when your child is ready for social media, Dr. Adelayo said it really comes down to maturity and if your child is developmentally ready.
“It’s difficult to say your child is ready right at age 13 as some kids may not be developmentally or emotionally ready to cope with the demands of social media,” she said. “Some younger children are able to handle social media in a healthy, respectful way. For some kids, this may be 15 years old or older.”
Here are some things to think about when making the decision:
- Have you talked about proper social media use with your child?
- Do they understand the importance of privacy?
- Do they know how to recognize and report inappropriate behavior or content?
- Do they know how to handle negative online experiences?
- Do they know how to distinguish between fact and fantasy?
- Are they resilient enough to handle negative situations, peer pressure or cyberbullying?
If the answer is “yes,” they may be ready to brave the world of social media. If the answer is “no,” this is a great time to sit down and begin conversations.
Are you ready for your child to be on social media?
Before you sign your child up for a social media account, make sure you are signed up and familiar with the service and its potential dangers. This way you can be online with them, as they learn, and you can be a good role model for your child to follow.
Getting your child started with social media
Here are tips on how to navigate the social media world together:
1. Talk to your child. “The best way to prepare your child is to speak candidly with them about using social media—the good, the bad and the ugly,” Dr. Adelayo said. “Ask them what they will use the app for and talk with them about how they can use it safely. Talk with them and not at them.”
Whether your child shares everything with you or is close-mouthed, keeping the door open for conversation on the topic is important and can promote positive social media use.
2. Develop a social media contract. Come up with a written agreement you are both comfortable with about appropriate use and the consequences if something is broken. If you’re child doesn’t live with you permanently, work with the other parent or guardian to ensure everyone is on the same page.
“The agreement could include things like friending only people they know, setting their account to private, what can be posted or shared and when and how often they can use it,” Dr. Adelayo said. “Don’t be vague. Be as specific as possible.”
In addition, include what you agree to as their parent. This may mean you’ll follow and monitor their posts, but you’ll agree to not post anything they deem embarrassing.
Once completed, you will both sign it and keep it in an area where they’ll see it.
3. Limit social media time. Set consistent screen time limits on when your child can be on social media. There are apps and settings in place that can restrict their use to a certain time of day and even amount of time they can be on social media. Teach them the importance of unplugging, and don’t let them sleep with their devices, if possible.
4. Follow your child’s account. Monitoring can give you a pulse on how your child is doing and help clue you in to any red flags. Ask them about the people they are following online and show genuine interest. “Remember knowing where your child is and who they are talking to isn’t eavesdropping—it’s good parenting,” Dr. Adelayo said.
5. Practice what you preach. This can be easier said than done, but your child will learn by example. By practicing positive social media use, your child will be more likely to engage in the same behaviors.
When to seek support for your child
While social media enables your kids, tweens and teens to connect with their friends, it can add yet another layer of pressure on top of school, extracurricular activities and other stressors.
If your child is having a tough time navigating the precarious, crucial years of adolescence, you can connect them with a licensed behavioral health specialist who can provide them (and you) with tools and techniques to manage all the stressors of those teenage years.
Here are some warning signs to watch for:
- Your child is spending more time on their phone than with their friends.
- You notice changes in their behavior, academics and sleep and eating habits.
- Your child talks about feeling hopeless, depressed or powerless.
- Your child is more irritable or angry.
“Social media can inform their habits and way of life in positive ways, but when it becomes toxic, when everything is tied to social media and it’s impacting your child’s mental health, it helps to talk to someone,” Dr. Adelayo said.
There’s no rush for your child to start using social media, but it doesn’t hurt educating yourself and your child, so you are both prepared for the day when they make the ask.
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