Kids & Social Media

It’s the question all the parents I know are talking about on the playground and at birthday parties: how should we deal with our kids and social media? In “Girl Meets Instagram”, the first chapter of my book Over the Influence: Why Social Media is Toxic for Women and Girls – And How We Can Take It Back, I write in detail about how social media affects teenage girls and how parents can handle their daughters’ use of it. In this checklist, I’ll explain key takeaways for parents of kids of all genders – including the things you need to do long before your kids ever get a phone or social media account.

Before Your Kids Are Online

1. Talk to your kids’ friends’ parents while they’re young and try to get on the same page about delaying when they’ll start using social media, since it will be hard to enforce a no social media policy if all your children’s friends are already online.

There’s no magic age when kids are “ready” for social media – to be honest, most adults aren’t prepared for it. But most major platforms don’t allow kids to sign up before age 13 and research does document negative effects of social media use in the youngest children, who are going through puberty. So I’m trying to hold off on letting my kids get accounts until they’re 16. Pray for me, please.

2. Discuss your family’s values long before your kids are ready for social media. Then, as they get older, you can discuss how you can all display them online (hints: Spread kindness. Support others. Watch out for friends who might be in trouble. Don’t value anyone—including yourself—for their appearances).

When Your Kids Start Using Social Media

1. Have a two-way conversation to set the ground rules for how your kids will use social media.  You can educate yourself in advance of this conversation by reading guides on the website of Common Sense Media about how different platforms work. The Family Online Safety Institute also has guides for parents on topics including how to create safe spaces for LGBTQIA+ kids online.

Ask for your kids’ input and ideas as you craft your general rules together – because you’ll probably find they have some smart ideas. For example, it’s generally not a good idea to let your kids use their phones when they’re doing their homework because constantly shifting their attention doesn’t allow them to give their work the focus it needs. But exceptions are called for – like when they need to use the Internet to do research for a paper. It’s also important to put our phones away before bedtime, because exposure to the light of our screens suppresses the release of melatonin, which is a precursor to sleep. And you’ll probably all want to put your phones aside when you’re having a family meal or important conversation and include non-digital activities as part of your schedules. But when you’re waiting for updates on a family member who is ill, for example, you’ll want to make an exception to this rule, too.

When you think about when your kids will be allowed screen time, consider making it a reward – for after their finish their homework and chores or read a book, for example. As part of the ground rules, agree that your kids will not use Artificial Intelligence or other resources available online to write their papers or cheat on their homework.

2. Talk to your kids about the pressures and dangers they’ll face on social media, from peers who ask them to sext to professional sextortionists— adults who prey on kids by pretending to establish a romantic relationship, for example, getting them to share a racy image, then blackmailing them by threatening to post it publicly unless they engage in more and more online sex acts. Remember, it’s often a felony for kids to take nude images, even of themselves. And once kids share a photo, there’s nothing to stop it from being hacked, or from their boyfriend or girlfriend forwarding it to other people. So teach your kids that they absolutely cannot ask for or send sexts – and that they should say no any other time they’re uncomfortable in a situation.

3. Make sure your kids know that other people’s lives aren’t half as glamorous as they may appear on Instagram.

4. Make sure your kids know that what they post can be used against them in very different contexts in the future.

5. Make sure your kids receive comprehensive sex education, including porn literacy, so when they’re inevitably exposed to online porn, they realize that it doesn’t represent reality. Otherwise, they may come to believe that the potentially deadly aggression like strangulation they see as a commonplace part of mainstream porn is something they should be doing – or that their bodies are somehow not worthy because they don’t look like professional porn stars.

6. Help your kids find positive role models to follow on social media and join healthy communities where they can develop their interests and identities – and avoid the potentially very dangerous ones, like the fitspiration community. And try to steer them away from more visually focused platforms like Instagram, where it can be easy to get caught up in idealized images of other people’s bodies and lives, leaving kids feeling like they don’t measure up.

7. If your kids want to be on screens, also direct them to other healthy activities online. Younger children can play games developed by PBS Kids, National Geographic Kids, or Older kids can practice their math skills through resources developed by the Khan Academy or take courses in areas that interest them through providers like Coursera and edX.

8. Watch for signs your kids are not OK – like major changes to their mood and behavior – and get professional help if they need it.

9. Be a good role model by putting away your own phone and not oversharing on social media yourself.

10. Make sure your kids get enough sleep and exercise and have opportunities to get together with friends and pursue healthy extracurricular activities based on their interests offline – which will all naturally reduce their screentime. In particular, encourage them to put away their phones and read physical books (which will help build their concentration) and get outdoors.  

11. Make sure your kids are taught digital literacy skills – like how to spot fake news and handle cyberbullying. If they’re not receiving this education in their school, sign them up for lessons at the library or use curriculums available online, like Common Sense Media’s digital citizenship curriculum or Google’s Be Internet Awesome curriculum.

12. Do not let your teens use dating apps. Full stop. They’re not safe for teens because there are way too many catfishers (people who will lie about their identities, try to establish emotional relationships with your kids online, then hit them up for money) and sexual predators on these sites.

13. Above all, make sure your children know they can come to you for help with any situation they face online without fear of punishment. No messing around here. Their lives may depend on it.

For much more, buy Kara Alaimo’s book Over the Influence: Why Social Media is Toxic for Women and Girls – And How We Can Take It Back