"What age should I let my child have social media?" Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to support parents in deciding the appropriate age for social media. But looking to recent data, expert guidance and your child's development, parents can make informed decisions on when and how kids use social media.
Gen Z and Gen Alpha are the first generations to grow up with social media at their fingertips.
Previous generations fought over the family landline to call a friend from the kitchen or family room. Today's youth operate in far more private social worlds, with smartphones providing instant access. Friends, influencers and news headlines are just a tap away.
For parents and caregivers, it can be a confusing issue to navigate in our increasingly digital world. Many adults who use social media themselves understand and know firsthand its addictive nature. Terms like "doomscrolling" — endlessly perusing social media — have become part of the national vocabulary.
Which leads to the question: is social media bad for kids? And, with seemingly everyone using it, what age is appropriate for social media?
There is no "right" answer, but looking to recent data, youth experts and your own kid’s development can help parents make informed decisions.
In the early days of social media, it was hard to gauge how much new platforms like MySpace, Facebook and Instagram affected their users. Parents and caregivers of then-millennials didn’t have a sense of how much these platforms would begin to shape young adulthood.
"In recent years, a growing body of data around social network usage in kids and teens is painting a picture of impact,” says Tanisha Grimes, Ph.D., National Vice President of Youth Development at Boys & Girls Clubs of America. “Overall, there's some cause for concern, especially around youth self-image and mental health. At a time when youth mental health is already a national crisis, it’s critical that we understand the impact social media can have on young people’s emotional well-being. But just like with any decision parents and caregivers make, understanding the big picture can help you make decisions tailored to your family and your values."
In a 2022 Pew Research Center survey1, teens shared where they're spending their time online. YouTube tops their platform usage, with 95% of teens using the site, followed by TikTok, Instagram and Snapchat.
Teens spend a lot of time on social media sites, scrolling for many hours each day. Over a third (35%) of teens use at least one of the most popular social media platforms "almost constantly." When asked how they'd feel about giving up social media entirely, more than half (54%) of teens said it would be at least somewhat hard to give it up.
Due to data like this, in May 2023 the U.S. Surgeon General issued a new advisory2 on the negative impacts of social media on youth mental health. The advisory asks policy makers, tech companies and researchers to learn more about the effects of social media. It also raises the flag to parents and young people to establish good online habits.
Social media can affect how youth feel about themselves. The advisory shared that nearly half (46%) of teens 13-17 feel worse about their body-image after using social media. Plus, social media can open doors to negative influence on youth, with 64% of adolescents saying they are “often” or “sometimes” exposed to hate-based content through social media.
With social interactions often comes bullying. Boys & Girls Clubs of America's Youth Right Now survey shows that nearly 1 in 5 kids and teens (18%) experienced cyberbullying in the past year. Youth are also less likely to report cyberbullying than in-person bullying, making it harder for parents and caregivers to know if it’s happening.
There's a flipside to recent data on social media and teens: there are indeed positive impacts of social media on youth. Social media can empower self-expression and entrepreneurship, friendship and connection, as well as inspire and motivate youth.
The U.S. Surgeon General “Social Media and Youth Mental Health Advisory” shared that:
“At Boys & Girls Clubs, we see how much teens want to lead positive change in their communities,” says Dr. Grimes. “They’re passionate about inclusion, social justice, mental health, education and their future. Whereas your high school used to be your whole ecosystem growing up, today’s youth are connected to other teens globally. Teen trends, concerns and passions can spread nationwide in a few days’ time. Social media has given them an unprecedented platform to use their voices and hear from other kids in communities outside their own.”
Some other positive uses to keep in mind:
Considering safety and privacy, it’s not advised that young people under the age of 13 be on social media. In fact, most social platforms require youth to be age 13 or older to sign up.
However, these guidelines are not strictly enforced and most accounts only require Internet access and an email address to register — so it’s important for parents and caregivers to be aware of youth social media interest from an early age. It’s better to have a conversation early than discover your kid has already had an account for years.
Giving your young person the tools to navigate social media safely is preferable to totally banning it without discussion. Banning a social media platform might make youth more likely to seek it out, hiding it from adults in the household. A mutual conversation can help everyone share their concerns and priorities.
"Choosing when kids have social media accounts should be based on your family values, conversations with your child and their development level,” says Dr. Grimes. “Being a part of the online world is agreeing to another level of responsibility and use of safety precautions. It is important for youth to understand online personas and consider what their presence will be as well as the presence of others. Additionally, having conversations about how they will react if they see bullying or harmful content is critical in helping them navigate digital platforms. Youth should also be reassured that their parents and caregivers are a source of support if they want to discuss how social media is making them feel and need help processing their feelings and emotions.”
As your family decides what works best for your young person, here is guidance to navigate these conversations:
Discuss responsibilities and expectations.
Getting a handle to social media comes with responsibility. Discuss your expectations for how your kid or teen will behave online (and off). This may include: which account(s) they sign up for; access and parental permissions; privacy settings; setting limits for how much time is spent online, etc.
Adopt healthy practices for social media usage.
As your young person uses social media, help them lean into content they're interested in (friends, hobbies, clubs, etc.), curating content that is beneficial. Teach them how to block unwanted content and unfollow accounts that are impacting their self-esteem. This may include discussing: the importance of online safety; the type of content they post; what accounts they follow; how to be a good friend and ally online, etc.
Youth should report worries, problematic content or harassment.
The internet can feel private for kids, thinking a quick "X" out of a window ends the problem. Unfortunately, that’s rarely the case. Parents and caregivers need to build a trusting relationship where youth can speak up if they've seen or done something online they don't feel good about. Let them know that whatever they see or do, if it doesn’t seem right they should say something and you will figure it out together.
Check in with each other.
Discuss how time is to be spent online, note when boundaries are being crossed or social media is impacting them negatively, and have a plan to reset. “For years parents have asked, ‘How was school today?’” says Dr. Grimes. “But now there’s another level of young people’s worlds that they’re highly engaged in. We may have never asked, ‘What did you see on TikTok today?’ yet that’s where kids are spending a lot of their time.”
To tune into your kid’s social media experience, parents and caregivers can ask things like:
Establish tech-free zones in your household.
In our increasingly digital world, it’s important to formalize time for tech-free family connection. The U.S. Surgeon General advises families to prioritize time or spaces for in-person relationships in the household. Whether you designate tech-free spaces like the dining or family room, or specific hours of the day, be sure to model this to your young person (adults put down the devices too!).
There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to when kids should have social media. But families can weigh their concerns and the possible benefits, as well as their kid’s readiness and interest, to make informed decisions. By working together, parents and caregivers and youth can create a healthy and positive approach for using social media.
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