Children and Social Media

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If there’s one thing that really sets today’s younger generation apart, it’s their access to smartphones and social media apps such as Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. Teenagers and young adults today are just as likely to connect online as face to face, but should this also be the case for tweens and younger children?

Let’s take a look at what the experts say about the benefits and risks associated with children and social media, as well as what pediatricians say about the best age to give a child a smartphone.

What’s the right age for a mobile phone?
The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that there is no “right” age for a child’s first mobile phone. The organization has found that most kids in elementary school are interested in other types of electronic devices, including computers, DVD players and video game consoles. Although some parents choose to give their younger children a mobile phone for safety reasons, the social role of phones doesn’t become important until at least middle school. This is the age when children can be said to “need” a smartphone.

According to AAP’s website, cell phones play a social role that doesn’t become interesting in a child’s life until the tween and teen years. Before that, show watching and gaming are the prominent interests and are reflected in the digital activities the younger kids gravitate toward.

Social media pros and cons
Once a child has a smartphone or free access to a computer, his or her parents need to think about social media. This is uncharted territory for some parents and it’s tempting to simply forbid children from using it. This can be an unfortunate approach, according to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, since children who don’t have access to online social networking can miss out on some important benefits.

Social media apps allow children to keep in touch with friends and family as well as to discover new social connections. Children can develop their self-expression by sharing creative content and political views online. In summary, social media can help a child develop a personal identity and learn how to express it.

These are significant benefits that most parents want for their children, but they come with some pretty serious associated risks, including cyberbullying and cyberstalking, loss of privacy, targeting by predators, exposure to inappropriate content and identity theft. Then there’s the long-term health issues associated with spending a lot of time online instead of exercising or sleeping.

Many online risks are compounded by the fact that children have not yet developed the skills and judgment required to navigate the complex new terrain that social media presents. In particular, their limited self-control and susceptibility to peer pressure may cause them to experiment in ways that will have lasting consequences.

Sharing photos and videos through social media is a particular concern when it comes to children. A tween or teen may think they are sharing an image with just one friend, not realizing that it will be shared, posted and viewed by many other people. Once an image makes its way to the Internet, it could be around indefinitely and can haunt someone for years to come. Children and teens who have been exposed this way may experience damage to their self-esteem, depression and other mental health issues.

What parents can do
The AAP recommends that parents talk to their children and teenagers about the hazards they may find online. Most importantly, children of all ages who have access to social media need to understand that messages, photos and videos are never private once they’ve been sent to someone on a smartphone or shared via the Internet, and that it can be embarrassing and humiliating to have private content go public.

Many parents today are tech savvy and are familiar with the social media apps their children are using. They may have their own accounts and are able to follow what their children are doing. Others may be unfamiliar and uncomfortable in the new digital landscape and may therefore avoid talking to their children about it. In either case, AAP encourages parents who need advice to talk to their pediatricians about the social and health issues related to children and all types of digital media.

If you’re a parent who’s been left behind by technology, AAP encourages you to narrow the technology gap between you and your children by narrowing your own participation gap with social media. Getting online and learning more about social media apps will help you discuss online issues and concerns when they arise. The goal is to stay on top of children’s online activity through open communication instead of trying to monitor or control it by spying on them. ■

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