Children and Social Media: Some Advice for Concerned Parents

06:30 May 14, 2023

Children and Social Media: Some Advice for Concerned Parents

With so many social media services aimed at children, parents and families need help.

Some are seeing their children’s mental health suffer despite connections with friends on Instagram and TikTok. Others are questioning if children should be on social media at all.

Lawmakers have taken notice, too.

In April, the European Union approved a new law to force social media companies to remove harmful content or risk paying billions in fines.

In the United States, federal lawmakers recently introduced a bill aiming to ban all children under the age of 13 from using social media. It would also require those under 18 to get permission from a guardian to create an account. And the Federal Trade Commission is proposing changes to ban Facebook’s parent company Meta from making money from data it collects on children.

But making laws and enforcing them takes time. For now, here is some advice, for parents and children, on staying safe, communicating, and setting limits on social media:

Is 13 the right age?

In the U.S., there is already a rule that bans children under 13 from using online social media that advertise to them without parental agreement. It is called the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act which went into effect in 2000.

To agree with the law, social media companies have generally banned children under 13 from signing up for their services. However, it has been widely documented that children sign up anyway, either with or without their parent’s agreement.

Today, however, online privacy is not the only concern when it comes to children being online. Children now face risks of bullying, eating disorders, suicidal thoughts, or worse.

For years, there has been a push among parents, educators, and tech experts to wait to give children phones – and a way to get on social media – until they are older. One example is “Wait Until 8th” where parents agree to wait until their children are 13 or 14 to give them a smartphone. But neither social media companies nor the government have made any changes to increase the age limit.

If the law will not ban children, should parents?

“There is not necessarily a magical age,” said Christine Elgersma, a social media expert at the nonprofit Common Sense Media. But, she added, “13 is probably not the best age for kids to get on social media.”

The laws currently being proposed in the U.S. include bans on the under-13 set when it comes to social media. But there is no easy way to check a person’s age when they sign up for online services.

Companies have added some changes over the years, Elgersma noted. But she said, “Developers need to start building apps with kids in mind.”

Some parents have chosen to ban their children from social media completely. But experts say this could lead to isolating some children. They could be left out of activities and discussions with friends that take place on social media.

Another consideration is that children who have never been on social media may find it difficult to use social media when they are suddenly permitted to when they turn 18.

Talk, talk, talk

Elgersma suggests that parents go through their own social media and open discussions with their children before they are old enough to be online. For older children, she suggests learning about their interests as a way to have conversations.

Jean Rogers is the director of the nonprofit Fairplay’s Screen Time Action Network. She advises parents not to say things like “Turn that thing off!” when their child has been on social media for a long time. “That’s not respectful,” Rogers said. “It doesn’t respect that they have a whole life and a whole world in that device.”

Instead, Rogers suggests asking them questions about what they do on their phone, and seeing what your child is wanting to share.

Elgersma adds that movies that explore the dark sides of social media or research how social media companies make money can be good ways to connect with children on the subject.

“Kids love to be in the know about these things, and it will give them a sense of power,” she said.

Setting limits

Rogers says most parents have success with taking their children’s phones overnight to limit their online social media use. It is a plan that usually works because children need a break from the screen.

Rogers adds that it is helpful to explain what you are doing with your phone. Tell your child that you are looking at emails, looking up ideas for dinner, or paying a bill so they understand you are not on there just for fun. Then tell them when you plan to put the phone down.

I’m Gregory Stachel.

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