19 Feb What’s the Right Age to Give my Kid Social Media?
At Protect Young Eyes, we speak to a group of parents almost every week. We spend a lot of time talking about risks associated with certain apps which naturally causes at least a few parents to question decisions they’ve already made. Inevitably, during the Q&A section of the talk, a parent will ask a question about when is the right age to give a child their first social media account.
This is actually the wrong question. Let’s start with the government’s opinion.
What does COPPA say about Social Media?
The Children’s Online Privacy and Protection Act (COPPA), which has been in effect since 2000, protects the private, identifying information about children under age 13. This has become the standard for social media giants like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Musical.ly, and Live.ly since all of them require users to create a profile that includes personal, private information.
Even though this act has been around for over a decade, we are shocked at how few parents enforce any kind of minimum age for when their kids open up their first social media account. Whenever we speak to children in grades 3-7 (ages 8-12), we always ask them, “how many of you have a social media account of your own right now?” And, at least 20-50% of the kids raise their hands.
This isn’t a social media issue. This isn’t a kid issue. This is a parenting issue. Parents are telling their kids that it’s okay to lie. Parents are tossing their kids into a dangerous pool of risk without a life jacket. This is not okay.
What is the Right Question to Ask?
Although age is one factor in determining whether or not a child is ready for the pressures and risks of social media, it’s only one of many variables that should be considered. At Protect Young Eyes, we operate under the assumption that no child for any reason should be using social media prior to age 13. Turning 13 is the minimum requirement, and is in no way an automatic approval for Instagram or anything else.
Because, remember, age alone is the wrong question.
The right question goes something like this, “based on everything I know about my at least 13-year-old child, do I believe he/she is ready to handle the pressures, risks, emotions, and unpredictable nature of using social media and use it responsibly?”
This elevates the question.
And, in order to answer that question well, it requires you to truly know your child. Study your child. Analyze the behaviors of your child. It requires parents to be observant, engaged, and informed. Here are a few items to consider:
- What are his/her friendships/social skills like? Because if their friendships in real life have any level of drama, trauma, or tension, then those friendships will ignite on social media. Remember, social media is like gasoline for cruel behavior. Can your child carry on a meaningful, human-to-human conversation with a non-parent adult? If not, then they are not ready for social media.
- How well does he/she obey rules? Every kid pushes back at least some, but there is a level of defiance that rises above just normal teen disobedience. Is there deception? Regular lying? All of these indicate a lack of readiness for social media.
- Does he/she have a strong heart? I’m not referring to the way that her heart pumps blood through her body, but rather, is your child self-confident? Or, is he/she adrift in their identity, uncertain as to who they are or why they exist? Ask your son or daughter to name three amazing things about themselves. If they can’t do this, then they’re not ready for social media. Think about Instagram for a minute – how many 13-year-old girls are truly ready for “the whispers of Instagram?” The whisper that says, “skin and sexy = followers and likes.” The whisper that shows them an endless stream of perfectly polished pictures, with a subtle message about true beauty that is truly only skin deep. The whisper of female comparison lurks HEAVY on Instagram, and I know few 13-year-old girls who are ready for that.
- Is he/she trustworthy? For example, is she trusted to take care of children? Can your son or daughter stay home alone for three straight hours without any contact from you? If not, then they are not ready for social media. If he/she can’t handle three hours alone in the real world, then he/she can’t handle 30 minutes alone in the social media world.
- Is he/she at least 13 years old? I know, I’ve said this multiple times. Until the third graders we speak to stop raising their hands when asked if they have a social media account, I’m going to keep asking this question. Kids who begin using social media before turning 13 are beginning their journey into the social media ecosystem as a lie, and worse yet, one that is often condoned by parents.
- Have you had direct and frequent conversations about awkward things? I’m talking about the big three: sexting, pornography, and sexual predators. Before using social media, your child needs to have heard these words for years and know exactly what they mean and what to do when confronted by situations that involve them. Go through every possible “what if?” scenario and ask yourself, “have we talked about that?” Does he/she know what to do when they see porn? (because they will) Does he/she know what a sexual predator is, can recognize the signs, and is confident enough to know what to do when approached by someone online? (because eventually, it will happen). If not, then your son or daughter is definitely not ready for social media.
Can’t they just create a secret social media account?
The simple answer to this question is, “yes.” There are doorways to the internet everywhere and parents cannot control them all. We wrote a few thoughts about this in a recent post about Finstas or fake Instagram accounts. To summarize our thoughts from that post, we said this:
- Keep that doorway to conversation wide open. I find that whatever gets talked about openly and honestly usually has less deceptive power over us. For example, a conversation with your daughter might be: “Honey, you and I both know that you could create five different Instagram accounts without me ever knowing about it. But, I really don’t want you to do that. We have built up trust and I want to keep that.”
My 11-year-old already has social media. What do I do?
The answer to this question is mostly up to you. I’m not so heartless as to suggest that every parent in this situation should just automatically grab their kid’s phone and delete their social media accounts. But, once you’ve assessed the potential risk, maybe after reading our write-up about the app, a very loving and direct conversation should take place. The result of the conversation might be a decision to allow the social media access to remain, but with new parameters. The result could also be a lot of tears and some tough love. Either way, this is an opportunity for loving, firm, and confident parenting, which is absolutely necessary when there is so much on the line.
How powerful would it be to say to your child, “honey, I’m not a perfect parent and I messed up. I should have protected you better, but I did not, and for that, I’m sorry. You are trustworthy, but I don’t trust the 450 million other people on Instagram who don’t care that much about you. At least not how I care about you. I want to keep you safe wherever you go and the includes where you go online. I should have done a better job but I did not and now I need to make things right. Will you be able to use social media again in the future? Yes, probably, yes. But, we need to start over and do this right because you’re worth it.”
Open and honest. This is the right place to be.
So, how do I train my child to use social media?
I’m glad you asked because this is really important. I realize that thus far, what I’ve suggested is radically different than how many families currently operate. But, I believe it’s time to crush the idea that social media is an entitlement. Instead, I believe that much like the process we use to teach our children how to ride a bicycle, we can teach out children how to use social media.
Think of all the precautions that go into teaching a child how to ride a bike. Then, ask yourself, “what if I was that intentional about teaching my child how to use social media?”
Use it for Seven Days
A very first step is for parents to understand all the ins and outs of the social media app your child wants. This means research and usage. We tell parents to use any app their kids want for SEVEN days. Don’t just download it and don’t touch it again. Actually use it. Poke around. Create a profile. Like a few things. Poke around in the settings. Pay attention to the notifications it generates. Some apps have intelligence build into them that show you more over time. That’s why we recommend seven days. Then, at the end of seven days, ask yourself, “can my kid handle everything I just experienced.”
Monitor What They Do
Secondly, let’s lay out one reality about social media apps – most apps (e.g., Instagram, Snapchat, Musical.ly, Twitter, Live.ly, etc.) don’t allow any monitoring and few have any parental controls at all. Because of this reality, I’ve made a personal decision that my daughter (my oldest child) must prove worthy of navigating social media in the app ecosystem by first proving that she can navigate social media in an ecosystem that I can control.
Are you following me? Simply stated: If I can’t monitor it, then she isn’t allowed to use it. At least not at first. If she were in the military, they would never put a loaded weapon in her hand that she’s never practiced using before in a closely monitored and controlled way.
Therefore, the goal is to find social media that behaves through a browser similarly to how it behaves in the app. This automatically eliminates Instagram, Snapchat, Musical.ly and Live.ly. This is because these apps only function the way kids use them in an app. I can’t go to www.snapchat.com and get the same experience as I have within the app. Therefore, there’s nowhere to practice.
On the other hand, if I access www.facebook.com or www.pinterest.com through a filtered and monitored browser (like Covenant Eyes or Mobicip), then I can experience many of the same behaviors through the browser that I can through the Facebook and Pinterest apps. Therefore, I am saying that as they stand currently, I would choose both Facebook and Pinterest as the social media platforms I would use to train my daughter about social media.
We can create a joint account. We can jointly decide on what privacy settings will best protect her. I’ll click around with her to explain the different aspects of the platform through the filtered and monitored browser. We can select the words and/or images for our first post and then have conversations about how it made her feel when someone “liked” or “commented” on her post. I’ll quiz her often about “what would you do if ________ ever happened?” I’ll eventually allow her to have a bit of time without me looking over her shoulder, but she’ll know exactly what Covenant Eyes is, and how we use it as a family to keep each other safe online, and that I get a report of how she’s using her social media.
And, if over time, she proves herself trustworthy, then maybe she can graduate to the app. Access to social media through an app is earned and not automatic.
I know that for some parents, this is going to be a major source of conflict. They will seem like “the only parent” who doesn’t let their kid use social media. Again, I have to be direct and say that this is a parenting issue. The stakes are high. Stick to your guns. You do have allies in this fight to push against a culture that wants to put a phone and a social media account in every child’s hand.
Have you tried something that worked really well when training your child how to use social media? If so, I’d love to know about it. Please leave a comment below! And, we love talking to parents about these kinds of decisions. Could your church or school (public or private) benefit from this type of information? Book someone from the Protect Young Eyes team for a presentation today!