Last week, I waved goodbye to my eldest son as he moved halfway across the world to study for a year. I was so emotional at the airport – I couldn’t talk! After many cups of tea and even more stares in an airport café, I had no more tears left and was finally able to pull it together. I must have looked like a crazy cat!
Letting go of our kids is tough. Whether it’s their first day of school, their first sleepover, their first girlfriend or boyfriend or their first social media account – these steps towards independence can be enough to send many of us into a tailspin.
Our main job as parents is to raise our kids to be independent, law-abiding individuals who are autonomous. But every child is different with some maturing far quicker than others. So, how do we know when our kids are ready for important life milestones, particularly joining social media?
What Does the Law Say?
While there is no Australian law that dictates the minimum age kids need to be to join social media, most social media platforms require their users to be 13 years old to set up an account. This is a result of a US federal law, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which affects any social media platform that US citizens can join. So, therefore it affects nearly all social media platforms worldwide.
What Happens in Reality?
Rightly or wrongly, many kids join social media before the age of 13. Some do this with the consent of their parents, while many don’t. In recognition of the ‘reality of the situation’, many big-time social media players, including Mark Zuckerberg, have been critical of the COPPA legislation claiming it is unrealistic. Zuckerberg even committed to trying to get it overruled – so far, no news!
And this reality hasn’t escaped the attention of the big players. Earlier this month, Instagram released a parent’s guide in which they acknowledge that ‘many younger children (under 13) use the service, often with their parents’ permission’. The parent’s guide, produced in conjunction with US internet safety group Connect Safely, also advised parents that banning social media may not be the best solution to managing their teen’s digital socialising. Instead they suggest parents should ensure the lines of communication are always open so that they can work with their kids to find appropriate ways of managing their digital lives. Pretty sound advice if you ask me, but Instagram was criticised for offering self-serving advice and encouraging youngsters to get online.
What to Do?
As the mother of four boys, I can unreservedly tell you that a ‘one size fits all’ approach does not cut it when raising kids. Every child is different. Some kids are more robust and resilient while others are more sensitive and emotional. And that’s OK. The worst thing we can do as parents is assume milestones must be met at the same time everyone else’s children do.
Just like with toilet training, sleepovers and co-ed parties, you (as the parent) are the absolute best judge of when your child is ready for these key steps. And social media is no different. Yes, there is a plethora of advice from experts and ‘experienced’ parents to consider but ultimately, it’s your call as the parent.
What To Consider When Deciding When Your Child Should Join Social Media
So, here are some things to consider when deciding if, and when your child should join social media. If your tween has already gone ahead and joined, then why not use these points to refine the current usage strategy.
1. Are They Ready?
Chances are your tween will be busting to get onto social media and will absolutely consider themselves ‘ready’! In fact, they may have already gone ahead and created their own profile without consulting you. But if they haven’t and you have a close connection with your kids, then you have a golden opportunity to assess their readiness.
You may decide that your under 13-year-old is mature enough and help them set up social media accounts and profiles. Many believe social media is an inevitable, unavoidable milestone and that it’s best to manage it proactively to avoid underground activity. You may require passwords to be shared and for posts to be approved before they are uploaded. If they have proved themselves to be trustworthy after a period of time, you may choose to be less involved.
However, if you have a child who is less mature and who tends to be anxious, you may insist they wait till 13. As we all know, it is not always pretty online. A certain level of resilience and a decent dose of perspective is essential to ride out the bumps. If there is any pushback from your tween then just talk a lot about the COPPA legislation!
2. Family Policy
If you have a tribe of kids, you may want to consider a family policy on the age your offspring can join social media. Although I am not a believer in ‘one size fits all’, I can tell you from experience that the perception of fairness in a family is very powerful. The arguments over who gets the bigger piece of cake or whose turn it is to sit in the front seat can drove you bonkers!
3. Workshop the ‘Likes Culture’ Before They Embark on their Social Media Careers
The quest to get likes online can become all encompassing, particularly when you are navigating your way through your teenage years. Before your kids join up, please have several conversations about the dangerous ‘culture of likes’ that is pervading the online world. Likes are viewed as a measure of social acceptance for many teenagers. The number of likes they do (or don’t) receive can affect their self-esteem and confidence which is very concerning. Please ensure your kids are NOT defined by the number of likes on a post and that this number is NOT reflective of their worth.
4. Set the Ground Rules
Regardless of whether your tween is about to embark on the social media journey or whether they have taken the advanced route, a family technology contract can be a great way of clarifying and formalising your expectations of both their social media usage and behaviour online. If you are looking for a good place to start, check out the contract that The Modern Parent uses. Obviously adapt it for your own situation and children’s needs, but ensure it covers key points including time spent online, sharing of personal information and what to do if a stranger tries to befriend you or if you receive online abuse.
Personally, I think 13 is a great age to kick off one’s social media career. I’m a fan of risk management and I really believe the older kids are, the better they can deal with complex online situations. But I also believe you should trust your gut as a parent. You may have a very mature 12-year-old, with a host of older siblings, who is busting to get on Instagram. Working with them to set up a profile, sharing passwords and mentoring them through their entrée to social media may be a much better option than pushing this inevitable step underground and off your radar.
So, over to you parents. This is your call! And just to inspire you a little more, let me just borrow some words from Scottish actor and father of 4 daughters, Ewan McGregor:
‘The thing about parenting rules is there aren’t any. That’s what makes it so difficult.’