What is the “right” age for a child to be involved in social media? This is a question I get asked a lot, both as a practitioner of corporate social media and also as a co-founder of the Digital Family Summit.
Some might think there is an easy answer. Nearly all account-based websites, by necessity of COPPA (Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act), provide terms of service which state that the minimum age for account holders is 13. As a parent, it might be easy to say to a kid, “the rules are 13, you can join when you’re 13, and that’s that.” But this answer is far too simplistic.
I know plenty of kids under the age of 13 who have benefitted greatly from creating and using social media. By the same token, I know of or have heard of many kids who are 13 and over who have been miserable using social media, or who have had serious social and mental issues related to their use of social media.
Please note that I am not advocating that you allow your under-13 children to sign up for social media accounts. I am not. However, I’m a realist in that I know it happens every day, and I’d like to provide at least a little bit of guidance as to how kids, of any age, can engage in social media appropriately. In my mind, that guidance begins with parents understanding the issues at hand.
Encouraging Content Creators
Digital content creation can be a tremendous creative pursuit for kids. I think the ability for a kid to express themselves through writing, photography or video should be encouraged, and if engaging in social media makes those creative expressions more appealing to kids, I’m all for it. But that’s where the slippery slope of what’s appropriate begins.
Not all social media is created equal, especially when it comes to kids’ use of various platforms. I think social media for kids breaks down into two primary categories:
1) Personal platforms: Blog, YouTube, Flickr
2) Networked platforms: Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest (and others)
Let’s consider the benefits and pitfalls of each of these categories for kids – and their parents.
Personal Social Media Platforms
Personal social media platforms are those that can be kept fairly individualized; there’s no need to “network” in order to make them valuable to a tween or teen who wants to get online.
For all of these platforms, it’s possible to have a private presence, where you can restrict access only to people you approve. Parents can control who a kid is allowed to invite – family, close family friends, and potentially very close friends of their children.
Here are some helpful links detailing privacy settings for personal platforms:
For each of these platforms, it’s possible to set up accounts, provide access only to a few people, and then allow kids to have a lot of flexibility as to what they post and when. Of course, parents still must monitor the content that goes into these platforms, and should have access to the account via the kid’s password (see below).
Though you could subscribe to someone’s YouTube channel or add them as a contact on Flickr, it’s entirely possible to only broadcast using these channels, vs. consuming others’ content and following other people or streams. Vigilant parents can ensure that kids aren’t adding subscriptions or contacts to their accounts, keeping these platforms a one-way (outbound only) street. Kids get to build an audience and show off their work, and parents can worry a little bit less about who they’re following or what content they’re consuming.
Networked Social Media Platforms
The “Big 4” networked social media platforms: Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest, are really only interesting (to anyone, not just kids) if the account is networked with others – they follow people and people follow them back. On Facebook, this is always a mutual thing: you must follow everyone who follows you on Facebook. On the other three platforms, you could follow anyone and anyone could follow you, with no need for mutual approvals.
Given the social nature of these platforms, it’s vitally important for parents to understand and help set up appropriate privacy settings for their kids accounts.
Twitter and Instagram both offer “private” feeds, whereby you must approve everyone who requests to follow your account. Instructions on setting up these types of accounts are found here:
Twitter Protected Tweets
Instagram Private Photos
Facebook has very strong privacy settings to control who outside a person’s friends can see and interact with their posts and profile. However, by its very nature (because friending must be reciprocal), Facebook cannot be wholly private or by invite only. Therefore, the most important thing for parents to think about on Facebook is setting up very clear guidelines on who kids are allowed to friend.
Pinterest does not really offer a private setting; however, there are secret boards, so you could set up an account and then only use secret boards, granting access to close friends and family only. This might get a bit tedious, though, so be conscious that Pinterest may be a bit harder to police.
The One Social Media for Kids Rule
I’ve read a lot and heard a lot of “rules” that parents have set up for their kids in social media. I suggest only one real rule, and it’s actually for parents:
Parents must be closely, intimately, involved with their kids social media use.
I know you don’t want to hear this: If you aren’t prepared to be engaged in your kids social media accounts daily or a few days a week, minimum, then you probably should not allow them to be on social media at all, regardless of their age.
If you acquiesce to your kid’s desire to be on social media (particularly if they’re under age 13, but even after that), but then you don’t police their use, I really don’t know what to say to you. Would you allow your under-13s to stay overnight by themselves? Do you let them wander through your city alone? Letting them participate in social media unsupervised is the same, or even worse: you have no idea what they’re going to see, hear or become a party to.
General Social Media Guidelines
I do have some suggested social media guidelines for kids and parents (assuming they agree to the above rule). This is just a starting point; I recommend that you create your own expectations for how your kids use social media, discuss them with your kids, and then adhere to them very strictly.
- Be sure you have your child’s passwords – if they change them, their account is taken away, no second chances.
- Help them set up their privacy settings so that only their friends/followers can see their stuff:
- WordPress, YouTube, Flickr: By invite only
- Instagram: Private Photos
- Twitter: Protected Tweets
- Facebook: No non-friends can see their stuff
- Make sure they never turn location services on. Ever. If they do (which you’ll know if any of their posts are tagged with locations) – back to the first bullet – account taken away, no second chance. This protects their physical privacy and helps prevent stalking and bullying.
- Log in to their account(s) on your phone or laptop as them occasionally – so you’re seeing everything they’re seeing as them, including, most importantly, the messages they’re receiving (which you won’t see if you’re if you’re only following them). Make sure they know you’ll be doing this and then follow through on it by doing it regularly – set a calendar reminder to do it once or twice a week at minimum.
- Set the expectation that your kid can’t allow as a follower or friend anyone that you (their parents) don’t know personally. This means they can’t friend or follow anyone that they don’t know in real life, which in most cases also means no friends of friends, and definitely no one they only know online.
You could add many other layers on top of this: how much time kids can spend on social media, which devices they can use, whether they’re allowed to use social media (and/or their laptop and mobile devices) in their own rooms or if they have to be in a public area of the house….I could go on and on.
The most important aspect of any rules or restrictions is regular, ongoing parental involvement in their kids social media. The rest are details.
I know there are many, many opinions on this and I’m eager to hear yours. Please post in the comments if you’re struggling with this, have had a good or bad experience with your kids and social media, or if you have tools or guidelines to recommend.
Image source: Digital Family Summit