Parenting has changed quite a bit in the past 20 years with 66 percent of parents with teenagers reporting that technology has made things harder than they used to be. Social media platforms are a big part of most people’s lives, and children are gaining access younger and younger.
In 2011, 75 percent of teenagers had a cellphone, and only a quarter used them for social media. This has changed drastically. Today, almost all teenagers in the United States (95 percent) have access to a smartphone, and nearly half report being nearly constantly on the internet.
While the legal age for children to obtain a social media account on most major platforms is 13, the average age children get their first account is 11.4 years old. Children are getting their first cellphone at the average age of 10.3 years old.
The brain is not fully developed before young adulthood (typically in the mid-20s). Too much screen time or time spent on social media at a young age can potentially impact brain growth and development as well as physical attributes. Too much screen time can contribute to obesity, decreased cognitive abilities, and difficulties with emotional regulation skills.
The following are some guidelines for children and screen time by age:
Children should be given consistent limits on how much time they spend on screens, especially on social media. Teens need to make sure to “unplug” at least an hour before bedtime to settle enough for healthy sleep patterns. This can seem daunting with smartphones being nearly constantly glued to the hands of teens and most adults. However, too much time on social media instead of in the “real” world can come with a host of negative mental and physical ramifications.
How Old Should Your Child Be Before They Get on Social Media?
It’s not recommended that children under the age of 13 use social media. Most of the big providers like Facebook and Instagram have this age restriction in place.
This does not stop children from obtaining social media accounts, however. In fact, they often do so with help from a parent. This starts their social media presence under a shroud of dishonesty and promotes lying to get what they want.
While 13 is often the age where a child can legally obtain a social media account, it is usually optimal to wait until at least the age of 15 before jumping into the world of social media.
At 13, young adolescents are often not mature enough to handle the pressures of social media and the nuances of interacting online.
If you let your child get a social media account at 13 when they are legally allowed to do so, it should be supervised closely.
Concerns About Children Spending Too Much Time on Social Media
While social media is a common way for teens and children to connect and interact with peers, it can expose them to inappropriate content, identity theft, and dangerous individuals who operate under false pretenses. It can also interfere with daily life functions.
These are some of the most common issues surrounding too much time on social media:
Too much time on social media can increase the risks for depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideations.
Social media often depicts the “best” sides of people, and young children or teens seeing that “everyone” else is happy and living their best lives can make them less happy and more anxious. Social media is often a place where teenagers compare themselves and their lives to others, which can drastically impact mental health.
Spending more time on social media and less time interacting with people in real life can increase isolation. It can also mean less exercise and negative sleep patterns, which can take a toll on a person’s mental health. Staying up all night on social media instead of sleeping can make it more difficult for a teen to regulate their emotions, think clearly, react properly, and control their moods.
FOMO, or the fear of missing out, is a real phenomenon. Teens and children often obsessively check social media to ensure they are not missing anything and they are being included.
Finding out via social media that they are left out of a social event can drastically impact self-esteem. Not getting enough “likes” or receiving negative comments can also be a blow to a young ego.
It can also increase potential face-to-face confrontations due to posts or comments made online. Too much time on social media can lead to false impressions and accusations. It can end friendships due to misunderstandings.
Conversely, spending too much time on social media can negatively impact relationships with family members and other people in the real world. As children or teens retreat more into the online world and spend less time socializing face-to-face, relationships can suffer.
Social media can foster negative relationships and invite potentially dangerous online interactions. It can pressure children or teens into sharing explicit content or elevate the risk of being the victim of sexual assault.
It can be difficult to know exactly who you are talking to online. Social media can expose children and teens to online predators and dangerous individuals.
Social media gives children and teens unlimited access to each other, which means that bullying activities can continue even after school hours. It can feel easier for a person to text or post negative comments than to say something directly to a person’s face.
Nearly 60 percent of teenagers have experienced some form of cyberbullying — being harassed or bullied online. The more time a teen spends on social media, the higher the risk for being bullied.
Children are less likely to use privacy settings properly and can be coerced into sharing personal information more easily. Teenagers regularly post pictures, discuss personal interests, share locations, reveal their birthdays, and post where they live and where they go to school. This can open them up to identity theft, fraud, or victimization by an online predator.
Once something is seen, it cannot be unseen. There is a lot of potentially damaging content on social media and online that is not suitable for children. Children and teenagers on social media are regularly exposed to explicit and inappropriate content and ads that can encourage risky and dangerous behaviors, including drug and alcohol use and violence.
Which Social Channels Are Best for Which Ages?
There are a variety of social media platforms, and the majority of the main ones require that a user be at least 13 years old to set up an account. Some teenagers may not be mature enough to handle social media until closer to 15 or even 16.
Many of these sites contain explicit content and mature themes that are not appropriate for a younger audience.
These are general age guidelines regarding when children may start using popular social channels:
Facebook: 13–15 years old
Instagram: 13–16 years old
Snapchat: at least 16 years old
TikTok: 13–15 years old
Twitter: 13–17 years old
How Can Parents Monitor Child’s Social Media Use?
Having open and honest communication with your child about social media use is one of the best ways to help them navigate it and manage use.
You can set boundaries on using social media, including only allowing access on a family computer instead of a smartphone or requiring that you have access to their login information. This can feel like a violation of trust or privacy, so you will need to talk to your teen about the best way to handle this for your family.
There are some programs, software, and tools that can help too. Here are some examples:
WebSafety: This is an app parents can set up to capture a child’s social media activity.
Bark: This parental control tool can help monitor social media activity.
Kaspersky Safe Kids: This tool allows parents to control screen time, block content, and set safe searches.
Qustodio: This is a parental control and monitoring app.
Signs Your Child Needs to Cut Down on Social Media
It is easy to get sucked into the world of social media even as an adult. It can be even harder for a child with less impulse control to manage this. Too much time on social media can create a host of potential issues.
These are some potential warning signs that social media use is at an unhealthy level in your child and needs to be cut back:
Social isolation and detachment from the “real” world
Less interest in things or activities that were previously important
Obsession over social media posts, comments, likes, and profiles
Lack of sleep
Strained personal relationships
Signs of being bullied
An online image that is not the same as the real one
Spending a lot of time comparing themselves to others online
Mostly excited about accomplishments in a digital forum
Drop in grades or school performance
Quick to anger when asked to put down the phone or get off social media
Acting more mature or knowledgeable about things than is age appropriate
How to Talk to Your Child About Social Media
Talk to your children about social media, both the pros and cons. Social media can help people to feel more connected and social, but it can also come with risks. Be honest about how social media works and set your expectations for its use.
Ensure that they understand their “digital footprint” and that posting things online can have consequences and ramifications for years to come.
Talk to them about thinking twice before posting anything and to ask themselves how what they are posting might impact others. The question to ask should always be, “Is this kind?”
How to Set Boundaries
Consider setting up a social media contract with your child, so they know upfront what is expected of them, and what is within the bounds of allowed and not allowed.
Be clear about what they are able to access and do online, and what they are not.
Set limits, including on screen time and access.
Phones should be kept out of the room at night and turned off at least one hour prior to bedtime.
Ensure that there is plenty of “unplugged” time.
Ask them to report any inappropriate or disturbing content to you.
Make sure that privacy settings are set up and actively working.
Should You Be Friends With Your Child on Social Media?
This can be a tricky question, as there are upsides and downsides to being friends with them. The key is to talk to your child ahead of time and establish your expectations.
If you decide to be friends with them, stay in the background and try not to engage or push them on their content. If you notice something that worries you, talk to them about it in person.
Being friends with their social media accounts can help you to keep up with what they are doing and posting. It may help to hold them accountable since they know you are going to see it.
Teens can be very adept at blocking content or managing controls in such a way that you will not see certain things, however. You can ask them to be friends on these platforms, but try not to insist. Remember that they are able to control what content you see, so you might not have the full picture.
How should parents manage social media?
The best way to manage social media is to do your research and keep the lines of communication with your child open. Talk about the risks and how to use social media safely.
What should parents know about social media?
Social media can be a positive outlet, but it can also cause a lot of issues. Be aware of the possible risks, and watch your child for warning signs that social media use has become toxic.
How to impose limits on social media?
Teenagers can use social media safely when there is open and honest communication, and clear boundaries on how it can be used. Talk to your child regularly about social media and keep your expectations on use clear and concise.
At what age should children have social media?
Most major social media platforms require that a child be at least 13 years old to sign up. This should be honored. Often, it can be helpful to wait even a few years beyond this to obtain an account.