Read on to find out how to know when the time is right to introduce your children to the world of social media
By Sarah Hughes
In the good old days when we were kids, our parents were just as obsessed with keeping us safe as we are now with our own children. But I envy the scope they were working with back then… Sure they had the fear all parents have when that little hand slips out of yours in the supermarket and for the most terrifying ten seconds of your life you can’t see them. The evils and bogey monsters of our childhood felt like physical presences. The man in the van who might stop and ask you if you wanted to see a cute puppy in the back of a van, the creepy stranger who offers you sweets. Dont talk to them, we were drilled. Don’t ever talk to strangers.
But what if talking to strangers was an everyday part of our lives as children? Because that’s the world we find ourselves in now, or at least it’s the world we find our kids in. Snapchat, TikTok, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram… the opportunities to talk to strangers are now endless. If that fills you with the same cold dread it does me; let’s look at how we will know when our child is ready to access social media and explore the experts top tips for doing it as safely as possible.
How young is too young for social media?
The main social media platforms have a lower age limit of just 13 years old. But if your kids are anything like mine, holding them off those apps until they become teenagers might seem like a tough ask. For girls, Instagram is a huge draw, with 56% of 13-17 year old girls having an account. For pre-teen boys and girls TikTok and YouTube are hugely dominant. The viral videos are part of the cultural zeitgeist and as parents it’s hard to argue with our child about why they’re the only ones who can’t view seeimngly ‘harmless’ videos about penguins falling over, makeup contouring tutorials or a montage of Messi’s best bits.
Also, as we all know, no two thirteen year olds are the same. It seems too formulaic to me to decide they’ll all be ready to deal with the onslaught of issues (body image, online bullying, screen addiction etc) that can accompany social media, the day they turn 13.
Klare Heston, author of How to know if your child is ready for social media recommends asking yourself if you think your child will be honest about social media interactions. Are they usually honest about real-life friendships and who they are sharing information with. Heston states that if they’re open with you verbally about difficult situations at school or within friendships, there’s a better chance they’ll be open with you about their online socialising.
She also encourages parents to ask themselves whether their child follows other established rules. Is the child emotionally mature and respectful enough to stick to household rules and complete chores when asked? Again, their real-life behaviour might indicate whether they’re likely to respect the boundaries you put in place for their online life too.
What are the pro’s and con’s of social media use for younger teens and beyond?
It’s easy to get bogged down in the well-publiscised downsides of social media, but believe it or not research shows there are some benefits too:
Keeps them informed on current affairs
Helps them connect with people (particularly helpful for disabled children or those with social anxiety)
You can ‘find your tribe’ there, connecting with people with similar interests or problems
Sites like TikTok and YouTube are increasingly being used as study aids by kids
Of course lots of these so called benefits are just one side of the coin. Negative consequences of social media use in teens include:
Exposure to cyberbullying
Accessing inappropriate content such as porn or self-harm/suicide
Decreases productivity (any parent who has seen their child turn into a zombie within minutes of scrolling through TikTok will be familiar with this one!)
Negatively impacts social skills (children who spend more time online tend to focus on virtual friendships rather than pursuing real life relationships and interactions)
Poor body image and comparison culture
What are the key things to consider when introducing your kid to social media?
So you’ve decided your child is probably ready for social media use, you’ve assessed whether they’re emotionally mature enough to navigate it and weighed up all the pro’s and cons. You’ve probably come to the conclusion that most parents do; that your child is going to find their way onto these apps sooner or later, and you’d rather they do it with your help and guidance, than have to sneak behind your back and access them.
Even if you would class yourself as pretty savvy, there are some simple steps you can take to ensure your child is as safe as possible when they enter the Wild West of social media.
Discuss and agree together which apps you’re comfortable for them to access, and set up security which means they have to request permission from you when they download a new app.
Talk to them about fake news and misinformation. It’s important they know that not everything they may see or read will be accurate.
Set and agree screen time limits and enforce them.
Talk to them about online spending - most of us are familiar with getting carried away because spending seems a little less real when it’s done through an app!
Express how important it is to realise if something seems too good to be true, it probably is! Scams are rife and children should always be encouraged to show an adult something if they’re not sure it’s legitimate.
Have uncomfortable conversations. Cyberbullying, pressure to send/recieve nude photos, self-harm images and videos… these are all things children need to be aware they might come across. Let them know that communication is always open between you.
Set up privacy settings on all major social media platforms. This hopefully will limit the content your child posts to just be seen by people they know in person.
Use these platforms. The only way you can truly be familiar with what your child might be doing on social media is to hang out there a little yourself.
For more tips on helping introduce your child to social media, check out the fantastic guides from internetmatters.org