Is My Child the Right Age for Social Media?

Many parents are concerned about letting their children begin to surf the Internet or start using social media or online games such as Fortnite, the latest craze for kids.  There is good reason for their concern. A common question is, “at what age should parents let their young children begin using technology?”

The bad news is that there is no specific age that works for all kids.  There is a minimum legal age for people to use most social media sites such as SnapChat and Instagram in the United States.  According to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule (COPPA), anyone using those apps must be at least 13 years of age.

The law is not aimed at punishing children who use such sites before they are 13, but is designed to protect them from data mining and influence by advertisers and companies who provide in-app purchases. The Federal Trade Commission, who enforces COPPA, ensures that companies comply with the act or face disciplinary action.

As parents, my wife and I never pre-determined at what age we would allow our daughter to start using social media.  As a cybersafety advocate myself, I know what can happen to children who go online. While parents often concern themselves with cyberbullying, there are other serious concerns, such as sextortion, where kids are forced to give explicit images and videos of themselves to other people.  I personally know people who have experienced this and I know how devastating it can be to families.

My daughter is in middle school now and was the last of her crowd to be allowed to use Snapchat.  She was missing out on many group activities by not being online. Everything was discussed online, so she had no idea the conversations were going on and ended up missing out on a lot.  Her group of friends would talk about meeting at the bowling alley or going swimming. She only found out later, when they were discussing how much fun they had together, what she had missed.

When we decided to let her use Snapchat, we set some very specific ground rules:

  • She was to “friend” me on the app.
  • She was not allowed to speak with people she didn’t know in real life.
  • I had the sign-on credentials for the account, which was created using an email address that I no longer used, but could still access.
  • Her privacy settings were set at the most restrictive level.
  • She was to hand over her tablet if requested.  Her cellphone was not a smartphone, so she could not download apps onto it, but she could send texts.

The first lesson taught in business management school or in officer’s training in the military is to never give someone an order than you know cannot or will not be followed.  At some point, your child will most likely start using social media. Prohibiting them from doing it is not really an option in our society.  They are likely to ignore your wishes and that is a recipe for disaster.  When they expect to get into trouble for using social media in the first place, it makes it even more difficult for them to come to you if something bad happens.

 Here are some tips on what parents can do to transition their children into social media when the time comes:

  1. Talking
    An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  Let your children know what is and what is not acceptable online.  Teach them what to do if someone asks them for inappropriate pictures, to share personal information, such as where they live or for their email address or phone number.  If a problem does happen, be sure to talk with your child and not at your child. Talking at them is the surest way to get them to tune out your message, as well meant as it may be.
  2. Take Steps to Protect Your Own Device
    Part of the concern is the amount of money children, especially very young children, might spend online. If you have stored credit card data on a device that you let your child play with it can definitely hurt your wallet since they can make purchases without your knowledge or approval. There are a few things you can do to avoid this. You can decide not to store your purchasing information on your device, or you allow them to make limited purchases by simply purchasing gift cards and loading into your account as you deem acceptable.
  3. Set the Example
    Children, especially younger children, pay attention to their surroundings.  Far more than most adults would expect. If they see their parents doing something, then they believe it’s okay for them to do it as well.  So, set the example for them about how people should behave online.
  4. Be Proactive & Stay Informed
    Technology changes on a daily basis and parents need to keep on top of the changes.  School districts may be reluctant to discuss cybersafety issues. Encourage them to do so before an incident happens.  On your own, find reliable sources of information regarding cyberbullying, inappropriate apps for young kids, etc. Two great resources are the Cyberbullying Research Center and Common Sense Media.

By taking the steps discussed here, your children are less likely to have a dangerous incident.  An ounce of prevention really is worth an immeasurable amount of cure.

The ability to know how to use technology is not the same thing as knowing how to use it wisely.  

Wisdom only comes with experience and by definition as  young children, their ages exclude that possibility. That’s why it’s up to us as parents to decide how to guide them, no matter what age they are. 

About the Author

Joe Yeager is the founder of Safety Net of PA, LLC and has been a cybersafety advocate for several years. He is an adjunct professor at Thomas Jefferson University. He is certified by the US Centers for Disease Control in Bullying Prevention and is the cyberbullying advisor to Fifty Shades of Purple against Bullying. He is also the author of #DigitalParenting- A Parent's Guide to Social Media, Cyberbullying &Online Activity, which was chosen as an Editor’s Pick in April 2016.

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