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Kids and social media: What parents should consider before letting their children go online

Yahoo Life 3/26/2023 Korin Miller
Letting kids join social media is a big decision. Experts weigh in on what signs to look for to know if they're ready. (Image: Getty; illustration by Caroline Brooks) © Provided by Yahoo Life Letting kids join social media is a big decision. Experts weigh in on what signs to look for to know if they're ready. (Image: Getty; illustration by Caroline Brooks)

Given how much adults interact with social media, it's understandable for kids to be curious about it. But U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy recently said that he thinks 13 — the minimum age to join Meta, Twitter and many other social media platforms — is too young, noting that it does a "disservice" to many children.

"I, personally, based on the data I’ve seen, believe that 13 is too early," Murthy said on CNN in January. "It’s a time where it’s really important for us to be thoughtful about what’s going into how they think about their own self-worth and their relationships, and the skewed and often distorted environment of social media often does a disservice to many of those children."

Murthy even encouraged parents to "band together and say you know, as a group, we’re not going to allow our kids to use social media until 16 or 17 or 18 or whatever age they choose — that’s a much more effective strategy in making sure your kids don’t get exposed to harm early."

Given how deeply social media is engrained in our culture, it's easy to think that letting one's child join a platform or two is no big deal. But Murphy's comments have a lot of parents rethinking when it's OK for their child to join social media — and what potential risks they should consider. 

What parents should consider before letting their child join social media

Experts say there are several factors to think about before giving a child the OK to join any social media platform. "Social media has created new opportunities for connection. However, this also poses a risk as these connections may be misaligned or misinformed as we work to share ideas and connections across a digital landscape," Preeti Sandhu, a pediatric psychologist at Connecticut Children’s, tells Yahoo Life. "Recognizing that you are not alone and creating a parental plan for addressing social media with your child or teen is the first step." 

It's important for parents to weigh the following:

A child may see inappropriate content, even with filters in place.

"Social media platforms have many challenges in monitoring their content and so inappropriate content can be accessed or available even if parental controls are in place or if the platform identifies that it is for 13+," Adelle Cadieux, a pediatric psychologist at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, tells Yahoo Life. While social media apps screen for harmful content, the effectiveness of these screening tools varies, she points out. "Users can [still] be exposed to inappropriate or harmful content, especially when livestreaming is used," Cadieux says.

Social media can impact self-worth.

Social media platform algorithms typically send more content about a particular topic to someone, even if they view one post. That can be dangerous if a child accidentally (or intentionally) clicks on the wrong thing. "If your child happens upon posts about anorexia, they will see more," Sandhu warns. "Keeping younger kids away from this spiral will help you to then navigate and keep them safe as they slowly enter the social media realm when you deem them ready."

Social media can be stressful for kids.

"As youth enter their teen years, they are developing their sense of self, their personal beliefs and values separate from their parents," Cadieux says. "Yet they also want to fit in with their peers." But social media ties self-worth to likes, she points out, and it can be stressful for a child who isn't getting the number of likes on a post that they want. That, Cadieux says, can lead to increased stress, anxiety and depression.

Kids have trouble understanding that what they post can be referenced later.

Social media often "lures people in" with the idea that once something is sent out, it disappears, Stephanie Strumberger, a licensed clinical counselor at Northwestern Medicine Woodstock Hospital, tells Yahoo Life. "A lot of children are tempted by that idea that they can do something and it will disappear forever, but that is not truly the case," she says. "One wrong move on social media can ruin a child’s reputation." Cadieux agrees. "What might seem OK to post at 13 or 14 might be embarrassing or not something they want to be reposted years later," she says. 

A child may be subject to online bullying.

"Social media increases potential for cyberbullying," Cadieux says. This happens more than most people realize. The 2019 School Crime Supplement to the National Crime Victimization Survey found that about 16% of students in high school experienced cyberbullying.

Social media can alter a child's brain

A recent study published in JAMA Pediatrics analyzed checking behaviors of 169 sixth and seventh grade students across Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, and found that kids who habitually checked the platforms had more sensitivity in certain regions of the brain that made them more sensitive to social rewards and punishments over time. 

Signs a child is ready for social media

Sandhu says there are a few signs that suggest a child is ready for social media. Those include:

  • They understand and accept that limits and privacy protection will be put in place.

  • They understand social media is a privilege and not a right.

  • They accept boundaries and expectations you put in place about earning social media access, like all social media use must be in the living room and full access must be given to you.

  • They show they know how to protect private information and what they should (and should not) post.

  • They are willing to talk to you about their social media use.

Signs a child is not ready for social media

Experts stress that it's important that a child is willing to talk about safe behaviors around social media and agree to the rules and boundaries you set. "If your child is secretive and inhibited in sharing with you, and is not OK with check-ins and monitoring, that's not a good sign," Mayra Mendez, a licensed psychotherapist and program coordinator for mental health services at Providence Saint John's Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica, Calif., tells Yahoo Life. "If they really shut down over guidelines, your child is probably not ready."

Strumberger also recommends that parents consider how their child does with their peers. "If you notice that your child is struggling to have self-awareness, or that they are easily influenced by their peers, it may be too soon," she says. "We are really looking for that child to have a solid sense of who they are before taking on that extra responsibility, because social media, like many other things in a child’s life, is a responsibility —not a right."

If a child is given the OK to go on social media, Sandhu recommends that parents keep an eye on their usage, and continue to have conversations with them about what they see online. "Have open conversations — in the car, while cooking dinner. during commercials — about their social media engagement," she says. "If you show an interest, they will notice and be more willing to come to you if they run into a problem."

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