Why It's Never Too Early to Teach Your Child Good Social Media Habits

Teens and even tweens are going to use social media no matter what. The American Psychological Association issues new guidelines for parents and children to stay safe online.

Teens take a selfie

Gabriel (Gabi) Bucataru / Stocksy

If you thought you could coast when it comes to talking to your younger child about social media, think again. Your tween may be counting down the days until they turn 13. Not only do they officially become a teenager, but they are also now technically allowed to use social media accounts like Instagram.

If it were up to the country's top doctor though, 13 is still too young for children to be on social media. U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy says kids this age are still developing their identities, and the environment on social media often creates a distorted view of self-worth and relationships. The Surgeon General adds he knows it's hard to keep kids off social media due to its popularity. But, he suggests parents create a united front and not allow their kids to get accounts until later in their teenage years.

Still, children will find a way online anyway. The number of children under 13 using fake birthdays and a parent's email address to create accounts on popular social media sites (whether they have permission or not) is a bit startling.

According to 2022 research from Ofcom, the regulator for communications services in the United Kingdom, 33% of parents of children ages 5 to 7 said their child had at least one social media account. About 60% of children ages 8 to 11 owned an account. That means instead of kickball, conversations at recess for your fourth grader may very well be focused more on who posted what on Instagram or TikTok last night. Scary, we know.

That's why the American Psychological Association (APA) came up with a new set of guidelines for parents and children to help them create safe social media habits.

Guidelines for Safe Social Media Usage

We all know teens and tweens are going to use social media no matter what, so it's important to set boundaries and expectations. That was the basis for the APA's new recommendations on social media use. The APA's advisory group came up with 10 recommendations.

One of the first points the APA makes is that kids should have some kind of social media literacy training. “Social media is neither inherently harmful nor beneficial to our youth,” APA President Thema Bryant, Ph.D. says in a news release. “Just as we require young people to be trained in order to get a driver’s license, our youth need instruction in the safe and healthy use of social media.”

Among the other recommendations, the APA says social media use should be tailored to kids' developmental capabilities. For kids on the younger side, adults should closely monitor their usage, which includes discussions around the content they are seeing. Tweens and teens should also be limited in how they're using social media to compare beauty and appearance, as well as be monitored for any signs of problematic social media use, which may interfere with their daily routines, sleep, or physical activity.

“We hope these recommendations will be helpful as we all try to keep pace with the rapidly shifting social media ecosystem,” says APA CEO Arthur C. Evans Jr., Ph.D. in the news release. Still, the APA says more investment is needed in research to further determine the impact of social media on our young people.

Positives of Social Media for Kids

There are undoubtedly perks to having kids of the proper age and with parental consent connecting with their peers on social media. Even the APA acknowledges there are benefits, including promoting healthy socialization.

Platforms like Instagram are full of inspiration and allow kids to creatively express themselves. But parents should also be aware of potential exposure to cyberbullying and inappropriate content. Younger children in particular may not realize the consequences of their online actions, which may put them in compromising situations. These are risks that the popular photo-sharing app is taking seriously.

Over the years, Instagram has unveiled numerous safety upgrades to protect kids and teens online. Some recent implementations: an education hub for parents, supervision tools, automatic private accounts for young users, a "Take a Break" feature that discourages endless scrolling, and more.

But Eddie Ruvinsky, director of engineering at Instagram, says monitoring isn't the end-all solution. "It's really about making sure that you have trust and you have ongoing dialogue for any activity that they do," he says.

Here are a few tips to get you started when it comes to teaching your child good social media habits.

Start Talking About Social Media Early

Ana Homayoun, M.A., P.P.S, a social media expert and the author of Social Media Wellness: Helping Tweens and Teens Thrive in an Unbalanced Digital World, who worked with Instagram to create parental safety guides, says parents should start the conversation around social media early. "Even if kids aren't on social media, many are online from an early age and using different websites," she says. "In my experience, kids aren't being informed about Instagram and other social media apps from their parents—they are learning from friends, peers, older siblings, and other influencers—so it's important that parents take an active role in encouraging conversations."

Make a Game Plan

"I encourage coming from a place of curiosity and asking open-ended questions to help children identify why they want to join Instagram, what they think a positive experience on Instagram would look like for them, and who they could turn to if something feels uncomfortable and doesn't go as planned," says Homayoun. "Doing so allows them to proactively think about how they would define and create a positive online user experience," She suggests using the three S's—healthy socialization, effective self-regulation, and overall safety—as a guide for framing the discussion.

Prioritize Privacy

"A lot of people don't always know they have the ability to be private on Instagram," says Lori Malahy, research lead at Instagram. Turning your account on "private" mode means that only approved followers can view, comment, and like your content. This could prevent your child's personal information from ending up in the wrong hands. Take a cue from Dan Zigmond, former director of analytics at Instagram, who required his kids to have a private account and personally know all their followers. (Note that Instagram automatically signs up teens for private accounts).

Enforce Good Social Media Etiquette

Receiving mean comments on social media can hurt a child's self esteem—and writing the comments can get them into trouble. Talk with your child about proper social media etiquette, and utilize the tools outlined in Instagram's resource guide. For example, the app lets you filter out offensive or inappropriate words from your comments.

Set Time Limits

Tweens are still developing self-discipline, so it's not unusual for them to spend hours on social media platforms. Work together to determine an appropriate amount of time they should spend on apps each day, whether it's 15 minutes or one hour. You can also take advantage of Instagram's Activity Dashboard, which lets you set daily time limit reminders, mute push notifications, and more.

Teach Kids Accountability

Cyberbullying is increasingly common nowadays. According to the latest Youth Risk Behavior Survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 16% of surveyed high school students said they were electronically bullied in the previous 12 months. That percentage goes up for those students who identify as female or LGBTQ+.

Thankfully, Instagram lets users control bullying by removing hateful comments, reporting negative behavior, and blocking individuals. "One of the most important things I'd like my son to understand is that things that happen online can affect how people feel offline," says Ian Spalter, former director of design at Instagram. "It's really important for them to take that into account with whatever actions they take online."

Practice What You Preach

You know that kids are sponges, and they're constantly learning by example. By practicing positive social media habits yourself, you're setting up your children for a rewarding and inspiring experience.

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  1. Ofcom. Children and parents: media use and attitudes report. 2022

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