Kids and social media: Here are tips for concerned parents

When it comes to social media, families are looking for help.

With ever-changing algorithms sending content to children, parents are seeing their children’s mental health suffer, even as platforms like TikTok and Instagram offer connections with friends. Some question whether children should be on social media at all, and if so, from what age.

Legislators have taken note. A bipartisan group of senators recently introduced legislation that aims to ban all children under the age of 13 from using social media. Guardian consent is also required for users under the age of 18 to create an account. It is one of many proposals in Congress to make the Internet safer for children and teens.

Meanwhile, the Federal Trade Commission said Wednesday that Facebook misled parents and failed to protect the privacy of children using the Messenger Kids app, including misrepresenting the access it allowed app developers to private user data. Now the FTC is proposing sweeping changes to a privacy order it has with Facebook’s parent company Meta, including a ban on monetizing data it collects about children.

But making laws and regulating businesses takes time. What should parents — and teens — do in the meantime? Here are some tips for staying safe, communicating, and setting boundaries on social media — both for kids and their parents.

IS 17 THE NEW 13?

Technically, there’s already a rule that prohibits children under 13 from using platforms that advertise to them without parental consent: the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act which came into effect in 2000 – before today’s teens were even born .

The goal was to protect children’s online privacy by requiring websites and online services to post clear privacy policies and obtain parental consent before collecting, among other things, personal information about their children. To comply, social media companies have generally banned children under the age of 13 from signing up for their services, though it has been widely documented that children sign up anyway, with or without parental consent.

But times have changed and online privacy is no longer the only concern when it comes to kids being online. There is bullying, harassment, the risk of developing eating disorders, suicidal thoughts or worse.

For years, there has been a push among parents, educators, and tech experts to hold off on giving kids phones — and access to social media — until they’re older, such as the “Wait Until 8th” pledge where parents sign a pledge to not to give their kids a smartphone until 8th grade, or about 13 or 14 years old. But neither social media companies nor the government have done anything concrete to raise the age limit.


“There isn’t necessarily a magical era,” says Christine Elgersma, a social media expert at the nonprofit Common Sense Media. But, she added, “13 is probably not the best age for kids to get on social media.”

The laws currently being proposed include blanket bans for children under 13 when it comes to social media. The problem? There is no easy way to verify a person’s age when signing up for apps and online services. And the apps that are popular with teens today were made for adults first. Companies have added some safeguards over the years, Elgersma noted, but these are piecemeal changes, not fundamental rethinks of the services.

“Developers need to start building apps with kids in mind,” she said.

Some tech executives, celebrities like Jennifer Garner, and parents from all walks of life have resorted to banning their kids from social media. While the decision is a personal one that depends on each child and parent, some experts say it could lead to the isolation of children, who could be excluded from activities and discussions with friends that take place on social media or chat services.

Another hurdle: Kids who have never been on social media may be ill-equipped to navigate the platforms when they’re suddenly given free rein the day they turn 18.


Start early, sooner than you think. Elgersma suggests parents go through their own social media feeds with their kids before they’re old enough to be online and have open discussions about what they see. How would your child handle a situation where a friend of a friend asks them to send a photo? Or if they see an article that makes them so angry they just want to share it right away?

Approach older children with curiosity and interest.

“When teens growl at you or give you one-word answers, they sometimes ask what their friends are doing or just don’t ask direct questions like, ‘What are you doing on Instagram?’ but rather, “Hey, I heard this influencer is very popular,” she suggested. “And even if your kid rolled their eyes, it could be a window.”

Don’t say things like “Turn that thing off!” if your kid has been scrolling for a long time, says Jean Rogers, the executive director of Fairplay’s nonprofit Screen Time Action Network.

“That’s disrespectful,” Rogers said. “It doesn’t respect that they have a whole life and a whole world in that device.”

Instead, Rogers suggests asking them questions about what they do on their phone and seeing what your child is willing to share.

Kids are also likely to respond to parents and educators “pulling back the curtains” on social media and the sometimes insidious tools companies use to keep people online and engaged, Elgersma said. Watch a documentary like “The Social Dilemma” that explores social media algorithms, dark patterns, and dopamine feedback cycles. Or read with them how Facebook and TikTok make money.

“Kids love being informed about these things, and it will make them feel empowered,” she said.


Rogers says most parents have success taking their kids’ phones with them at night to limit scrolling. Occasionally kids try to sneak back the phone, but it’s a strategy that usually works because kids need a break from the screen.

“They need to have an excuse with their peers not to be on their phones at night,” Rogers said. “They can blame their parents.”

Parents may need their own phone usage limits. Rogers said it’s helpful to explain what you do when you have a phone near your child so they understand you’re not aimlessly scrolling through sites like Instagram. Tell your child you’re checking your work email, looking up a recipe for dinner, or paying a bill so they understand you’re not just there for fun. Then tell them when you plan to put the phone down.


Parents also need to realize that it is not a fair fight. Social media apps like Instagram are designed to be addictive, said Roxana Marachi, an education professor at San Jose State University who studies data damage. Without new laws regulating how tech companies use our data and algorithms to nudge users towards harmful content, there’s only so much parents can do, Marachi said.

“The companies aren’t interested in the welfare of children, they’re interested in eyes on the screen and maximizing clicks,” Marachi said.

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