When Audrey Slater’s daughter (we’ll call her Katie) was in third grade, she picked up her mom’s phone one day and discovered Instagram. It was love at first sight. “She begged me to let her get her own account,” recalls Slater, of Brooklyn. She resisted at first but finally gave in, and last year at age 9 Katie began posting silly selfies, videos of herself doing cartwheels, and pictures of her dog. “It’s all very age-appropriate and sweet, but I do have to keep a constant eye on her,” says Slater.
At ever-younger ages, kids are asking for their own YouTube channel, Instagram account, or even to use Snapchat. Before you say yes, here are some issues to consider.
Technically, we shouldn’t even be having this discussion. According to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, it’s illegal for commercial websites and apps to allow children under age 13 to open an online account without verifiable parental consent. “The law was created to keep companies from collecting data about kids and marketing to them,” says Stephen Balkam, the founder and CEO of the nonprofit Family Online Safety Institute. Still, most children are savvy enough to get around this rule by using a parent’s e-mail and a fake birth date, often with permission.
Besides the legal issues, however, there are the concerns about maturity. “At ages 7 to 11, children are still thinking very concretely, and they haven’t yet developed the ability to consider hypothetical situations,” explains Lisa Strohman, Ph.D., founder and director of the Technology Wellness Center and coauthor of Unplug: Raising Kids in a Technology Addicted World. “So an 8-year-old girl posting a video about how to do her hair is just thinking, ‘My friends will see this and it will be great!’ She can’t take that next step and think about who else might watch that video and write mean comments or even repost it and use it to sell hair products.”
Still, it’s hard to generalize about the best age to start. “Some kids may be ready to handle social media under the legal age of 13, but most probably can’t,” adds Parents advisor Michael Rich, M.D., director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital. “You are the best judge of your child. Ask: Can she use it in ways that are healthy and respectful of others?”
When you do decide to let your kid make his first foray into social media, approach it as if you’re taking a new swimmer to the adult pool: Go in together at first, and keep a watchful eye on him as he finds his way. Dr. Rich recommends that you join the site yourself (if you’re not on it already) and become familiar with the safety issues and its potential uses before allowing your child to jump in.
Next, make sure you have full access to your child’s account by learning his username and password, and by following him with your own account. “Not only do I follow Katie on Instagram, but so do my husband and sister,” says Slater. “I also go through her list of followers every couple of weeks to make sure they are all people she knows in real life.” (If they’re not, Slater logs in and blocks them.)
If your child posts on YouTube, you can ask him to make all his videos “unlisted,” meaning they can only be viewed by people who use a link that he sends them. If they’re posted as “public,” remind him that anyone can view and post nasty or inappropriate comments. Another huge safety issue to keep in mind is geotagging (when a photo is stamped with the location where it was taken): Before you let your kid post, go to the settings on his phone and turn “location services” off.
Also, be certain that he knows he can talk to you about anything bad or weird that happens—whether another kid starts bullying him or someone he doesn’t know tries to contact him or ask for personal information. “It’s a conversation you have to begin before you give him the device or let him join the site, and you must keep the discussion going,” says Balkam. Lay down the rules for using technology from the beginning (when and how he’s allowed to use it and specific punishments if he breaks the rules).
And as difficult as it will be for your big kid to understand that his actions today can reverberate in the future (such as when he applies for college or a job), stress the “Grandma Rule,” says Dr. Rich. “Never post or ‘snap’ anything that you wouldn’t want your grandma to see.”
As any adult who’s ever posted on social media knows, it’s easy to become preoccupied with how many likes your photo or joke gets, and even the youngest kids are not immune to measuring their selfworth this way. I’ll confess that my daughter, Molly, is constantly checking how many followers she has on her Instagram fan page for the Broadway musical Hamilton (I allowed her to join at age 11). But the joy she gets from posting videos, trivia, and photos and connecting with fans who share her passion has made it a positive experience.
However, experts caution that most social media doesn’t revolve around musical passions and deep thoughts but focuses on photos and videos that put the emphasis on looks. “Constantly viewing images that feature appearance, popularity, and even ‘sexiness’ pushes a dangerous message, especially to young girls,” says Michele Borba, Ed.D., author of UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World. “They can buy into the view that what I look like is more important than who I am.” To keep your child’s image from sliding too far into the “look how pretty I am” lane, encourage her to post about books she likes, causes she’s interested in, and positive messages that she’d like to share.
Right now, Molly seems content with posting pictures and lyrics from her favorite show (with occasional shots of cute animals on her personal account). But if her social-media excursion ever gets in the way of her schoolwork or she starts posting inappropriate pictures, I’ll know. After all, I am one of her biggest followers, online and in real life.