When is the right time to allow my child on social media?

Social media is a huge part of life for most adults, but even more so for tweens and teens. So how do you know when to allow them to start their online presence?

The need to carve out an online presence mixed with social media FOMO has never felt more real, but as with all things – there are pros and cons – especially when baring our souls and sharing our lives on a public forum. Clinical Psychologist and parent, Paul Gertler, has some sage advice for those parents with children teetering on the brink of the great social media plunge.

When it comes to social media and kids, is there a blanket age for all children to have access to apps and personal accounts? Or should their access be based more on their social development?

When it comes to apps, for example, it’s best to go with the recommended age for that particular app. It’s too difficult to say what you feel your children can handle based on their mental and social development.  A teenager who might be seen as advanced in their development might just find themselves in too deep and realise after the fact that it was too early. It is also a problem for other kids’ parents in that it sets a precedent for kids that might not be old enough. If you lie about your child’s age in order to allow them to access these apps, then you are providing social modelling that says that they don’t need to follow laws, they just need to decide for themselves. That could be a problem down the line when they want to do other things before they have hit the right legal age.

Are there risks to introducing social media too early or too late?

Teens are impressionable because they don’t necessarily have broad experience of life. Introducing social media too early can make it difficult to see that there is a whole world out there.  Social media isn’t reality. People don’t tend to portray the full contexts of their lives on social media – just what they want people to see.  If kids are exposed to this too early, they don’t develop a balanced view and their developing personalities become highly vulnerable to low self-esteem. They might also believe that certain practices are commonplace, acceptable or desirable and then engage in behaviour that they later regret.

I do believe it’s important for kids to have some exposure to social media as teenagers though. When I was growing up, I remember kids at school had parents who didn’t believe in TV. They were the kids you’d invite over for a playdate and they’d be transfixed in front of the TV. They tended to gorge on it and see it is as something magical. This probably made them less discerning about the messages they were actually getting from TV.

Why do you think the ongoing issue of social media use is such a contentious topic for millions of households across the country?

I think the broader issue is screen time. Devices are extremely addictive, and it can be very difficult to put in place limits on kids and teenagers. Kids get a lot of behavioural reinforcement from social media. There’s a whole system of virtual ‘likes’ and other emotive responses. Learning happens from the consequences that we are subject to, but it also happens by the consequences we see other people are subject to. They can see what other people get up to on social media and how others might be rewarded or shunned, and that will influence their behaviour.

What are some of the practical ways parents can try to limit the time on social media once it’s granted?

It’s very important to have boundaries around the time you allow social media to take up.  It shouldn’t intrude on other tasks. Kids need to get good at disengaging from all forms of media. They need to learn to shift their attention and focus it on activities that might not be so immediately reinforcing.

Are there ways to track how your children are using social media? Is this akin to what parents used to do with reading diaries and snooping around their children’s rooms?

I do think it is important that you provide devices on the condition that you will be inspecting the device on a regular basis, but it can’t be something underhanded. It needs to be out in the open and kids need to trust that you won’t invade their privacy without a prior agreement. As a parent, you need to be consistent. Kids notice hypocrisy. You also need to be mindful that their trust in you is a constant that is a basis of their self-esteem.

Is it essential for mums and dads out there to keep an eye on their children’s social media accounts?

It’s important to be aware of what your kids are saying on social media or what people are saying about them because it could be impacting on their moods. Teenagers frontal lobes are developing, which means that they might not be making sense of what they are seeing on social. They might not even realise the impact of their online behaviour. They might need an adult to talk through this with them.

Does this mean it’s OK to friend request your teenage son or daughter? Or will that always be a forever daggy parent move?

If you want to be aware of what they are going through online you can ‘follow’ them or explore other ways such as sitting down with them and going through their feeds together. It could involve discussing where things might have gone wrong or where their messages could potentially be misconstrued or put them at risk.

Is there any advice you’d normally give to an adult regarding social media that also applies to children?

I have a lot of adult clients who come to me with problems on social media. I think it is always worth remembering that we are putting information out in a public forum – that why we call it social.

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