When my daughter was in fourth grade, she came home from school one day and asked me if she could open an Instagram account.
“Um, no way,” I responded. “You’re too young.”
“But all my friends have one,” she claimed. “When can I get one?”
If you have a tween, they’ve probably asked you at least once—if not a million times—when they could set up a social media account.
While social media networks must legally require users to be at least 13, determining the right time for your child is much more complex. The federal law is meant to prohibit websites from collecting information from a child without parental consent. In other words, the law’s purpose is child online privacy protection.
“The rest of us adopted this as a guideline assuming it was based on the psychological needs of children,” which is not the case, says Michele Kambolis, clinical therapist in Vancouver, British Columbia.
While social media networks must legally require users to be at least 13, determining the right time for your child is much more complex.
Instead, the decision about age limits on social media is in the hands of parents. Other factors are more important than chronological age, even for kids over 13.
Kambolis says that your teen’s ability to self-regulate and their susceptibility to peer pressure are two factors to consider. “If a child is mature enough to manage the social pitfalls, safety dangers, and distraction of social media, parents can certainly break the rules on age limits,” she says.
Look at how your children manage real-life social situations for readiness clues. “The research tells us that if a tween can manage their behavior without your external control and can stand their ground with their friends, that bodes well for their ability to manage social media sensibly,” she says.
In addition to maturity, Elizabeth Milovidov, founder of DigitalParentingCoach.com, urges parents to consider their children’s privacy, too. Giving permission to use social media is also giving those companies permission “to collect information and market to your child.”
While she agrees that it’s up to parents, she always advises parents to err on the side of caution when considering allowing younger kids to have social media.
“In today’s day and age of privacy and data protection challenges and mix-ups, parents need to think long and hard about letting their child on social media before 13,” says Milovidov.
But what if your child sneaks it?
You’ve decided your child is not ready. But holding kids off from the allure of social media can be difficult, and sometimes eager tweens take matters into their own hands. Using any email address and a fake birth date gets a kid a social media account, and many do so with or without their parent’s consent. What should you do when your tween goes rogue and sets up an account behind your back?
“I know of so many parents who have learned that their child has a social media account. I always pull out my first rule for digital age parenting: Don’t Panic. Parent,” says Milovidov. “This is a good way to get a conversation started on your expectations regarding how your child will use the internet, technology, and social media.”
While it may be tempting to simply punish for a forbidden account, remember that social media isn’t going away. This is a time to lean into mentoring your kid about online life, even as you continue to set the limits that are best for your family. Communicating exactly what you’re concerned about and talking about your standards for healthy online behavior can help to lay the groundwork for the time when you are ready to let your teen hit social media.
Are You Ready to Say Yes?
So your child appears to have solid decision-making skills. They have the ability to problem solve and understand cause and effect. They have proven themselves to be emotionally and socially mature. You’ve had several conversations about the dangers of social media and your expectations for them when they are on it.
Does the platform—the “big five” are Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, and WhatsApp—matter? Not really, but many experts recommend parents get an account on each network your child uses—and before your child if possible. “I do not think the platform matters as much as the parental oversight and guidance,” says Milovidov.
“As an engaged digital mentor, you can guide your child on how to use the platform confidently, how to come to you if something creepy happens, and how to be responsible when posting and sharing,” Milovidov says.
And when it comes down to whether your child will have a healthy relationship with social media, that can largely be affected by how they see you as the parent interacting on social media. “Model healthy habits,” says Kambolis. “If you interrupt conversations when you get a message on Instagram or spend hours every night in front of your laptop scrolling through social media accounts, your kids will have a hard time accepting your expectation that they hold off on social media.”