IF YOU GIVE a kid a smartphone, they’re going to want a social media account.
That’s not the start of a storybook. The average age for a kid getting their first smartphone is 10.3. Within a year, a child has likely made four or five social media accounts; by the age of 12, 90 percent of kids are already on social media, according to research by Linda Charmaraman, a senior research scientist who runs the Youth Media and Well-Being Research Lab at Wellesley College.
For parents and caregivers, the decision to let your youngster sign up for TikTok, Instagram, or Snapchat can feel like a daunting milestone. In May, the US surgeon general suggested that social media is contributing to a mental health crisis among the nation’s youth. Around the world, lawmakers have been mounting pressure on the likes of Meta and TikTok to restrict the addictive design features that young users are subjected to. But social media can be valuable to young people too. Digital spaces can be beneficial settings to build friendships and receive social support from peers. So if your kid starts asking about social media (or you suspect that they already have secret accounts), what’s a parent to do?
“Social media is not inherently good or bad,” says Charmaraman, whose research focuses on adolescent development and social media. “It’s really about how people come to use social media, in what ways, and what kinds of supports they have to navigate it in a way that’s right for them.”
“Don’t assume that your kid isn’t already on social media.”
It’s absolutely possible for families to foster a healthy relationship with social media by understanding the science, starting conversations about social media and mental health, and setting boundaries on security settings and screen use. Here’s how to get started, whether your kid is 17 or approaching the age of 10.3.
What Does the Research Really Say?
It’s still too soon to determine any long-term effects of social media on youth mental health, says Charmaraman. She encourages parents to take a critical look at the popular studies that draw correlations between teens’ social media use and negative outcomes like depression and anxiety. “When you actually look at the statistical weight of how much we can explain the rise in rates of mental health difficulties due to social media or technology use, it’s less than 1 percent,” she says.
Correlational studies might also discount larger forces that contribute to mental health difficulties, like socioeconomic status or family relationships. For example, if a child is in a household where parents argue frequently, the child may turn to social media more often to seek support or distraction. That doesn’t mean social media is the problem. More restrictions on social media don’t correlate to a happier child, either, Charmaraman points out.
It’s also important to understand that much of the current research on social media and youth well-being has focused on middle-class white families. There’s still more to be learned about how social media impacts nonwhite, LGBT, or neurodivergent youth, or youth in unstable housing situations.
In other words, there’s no scientifically proven, one-size-fits-all social media rule. Tailor the following guidelines to your family and your kids, and be ready to adapt them as your kids grow older and their situations change. Don’t be afraid to set different guidelines for siblings too—kids in the same family could have different needs.
You might want to start earlier than you think. “Don’t assume that your kid isn’t already on social media,” says Charmaraman. Especially if your child has an older sibling, or friends with older siblings, it’s likely that they’ve engaged with social media in some way.
Charmaraman recommends initiating a conversation about social media when a child is in late elementary or middle school, then gradually “onboarding” them onto social media with a lot of structure, rules, and oversight at first. It’s easier to be proactive about social media guidelines than to try to undo bad habits that have been cemented over years. “Prepare, as opposed to repair,” she says. (If you have an older teen, not all hope is lost—but more on that later.)
To onboard your kid, start with the highest level of scrutiny and security over their social media use, then gradually loosen the reins as the child gets older. Open up the social media app that your child is interested in, and look through the menu of settings together. Have a conversation with your child about how the platform works: What kinds of security settings and parameters make sense at the moment? Who should be allowed to message your child?
If a child is younger, you might consider having access to the account’s password as well. You might also set up an app’s in-house parental controls. (Here’s how to do that on Snapchat and Discord.) That way, if your child encounters violent, sexual, or other inappropriate content, you can intervene more quickly.
As a child gets older and earns more trust, parents can loosen restrictions on safety settings. If the child shows that they’re not yet able to self-regulate the healthy time they’re spending on social media, add more restrictions.
Chararaman recommends the onboarding approach rather than banning social media outright. Kids can find ways around restrictions, and more seriously, they’ll likely hold back if something bad happens to them online.
Recognize the Signs of Problematic Media Use
How can you tell the difference between healthy and unhealthy use of social media? Charmaraman says there’s no magic number for screen time limits. Some kids can use their phones healthily for several hours, if they’re searching for information or interacting with friends. Other kids tend toward more problematic behaviors, so they would benefit from more guardrails around screen time.
Sarah Domoff, an assistant professor at the University at Albany – State University of New York, suggests that as parents observe their kids’ social media use, they look into three broad categories:
- The content your child encounters: You won’t be able to block all potentially inappropriate content on the internet from your child. So it’s important to know how your child responds. Do they continue to engage with content that’s potentially harmful, stressful, or untrue? If they’re having unhealthy responses to what they see on social media, consider more restrictions. If your child is able to recognize and bypass inappropriate content, they can be more independent.
- When social media is being used: “The research shows that some times of day may matter more than others,” Domoff says. If screens interfere with sleep or schoolwork, consider having a conversation with your child about changing the timing of social media use, so it doesn’t interfere with other activities that keep them well.
- Vulnerabilities that are specific to your child: Some youth may be more vulnerable to certain kinds of content or interactions that exacerbate mental health concerns.
Use these three categories to guide the conversations you have with your kids about social media. It’s important to acknowledge that it’s developmentally appropriate for teens to need some privacy from their parents as they explore their identities. If you decide to follow what your teen is doing online, make sure that your teen is aware of it. Frame your actions transparently, says Domoff. Try to tell them, “Because I’m concerned about your safety, I will be checking your content” or “I understand there are things that you may not want me to see. I’m just concerned about you being safe.”
Start a Conversation at Any Age (and Maybe in the Car)
What if your child is an older teen with social media accounts, known to you or otherwise? It’s never too late to start a conversation, says Aliza Kopans, a rising junior at Brown University and cofounder of Tech(nically) Politics, an organization that collects youth stories about social media and advocates for legislative reform. She says it’s important for adults to validate the importance of social media to teens. Don’t frame it as a waste of time, and acknowledge that online friendships can be just as valuable as those made in real life. “Come from a place of curiosity,” says Kopans. Rather than making assumptions, ask your teen how they’re using social media and how social media is making them feel, and start from there.
Domoff recommends weaving conversations about social media into your daily conversations. Treat it as informally as asking them how school went. “Just as you want to be the person your kids come to when they have a fight with their friend, you want to be that person too when it comes to online interactions,” says Domoff.
Still feeling awkward? Try talking about social media in the car, on the way to school or basketball practice. Parents often have an easier time navigating potentially awkward conversations in the car, says Charmaraman. That way there’s a natural end point, and you don’t have to make weird eye contact.
Be a Good Scroll Model
Your own behavior as a parent or trusted adult can have a powerful impact on your children’s relationship to social media. “If you’re checking work emails on your phone at the dinner table, what example does that send?” says Kopans.
Try to open up about your own experiences and reflections on social media, says Domoff. As a parent, you can model conversations about consent and privacy online. Ask your child, “Is it OK if I post this picture of us?” She suggests sharing your own day-to-day experiences, like accounts you follow or memes that you like.
She also suggests sharing the ways that social media impacts your own mental health, asking your kids something like “Hey, I saw this content, and it made me sad. Do you see things that bring you down? What’s something that you can look up online that lifts you up?” Address the mistakes that you’ve made on social media, and show your teens that they can always recover from their social media missteps too.
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Model good internet privacy hygiene for your kids too. Teach them how to create (and keep secret) strong passwords for social media accounts, set up two-factor authentication, and practice basic smartphone security.
Finally, you can let your kids make some mistakes on social media, just like they will inevitably make mistakes in their friendships or at school. “Remember that being online is a skill that young people need to develop,” says Charmaraman. Friction or drama on social media doesn’t necessarily mean you should pull the plug. Eventually, your teen will become a young adult who is going to need to know how to monitor their own internet activity.
Rather than bringing out the banhammer immediately, consider the skills you’re helping your kid build, Charmaraman says, “Think less about ‘How do I get my kid off their phone?’ and more ‘How do I equip my kid with the literacy and self-knowledge to prepare them for a digitally connected future?’”