a black phone with social media app iconsSocial media today is used by many adults to connect with friends, share fun content, and more. But adults aren't the only ones who enjoy using these engaging platforms. Children - specifically preteens and teenagers - are known to use popular social media sites, often in different ways than their adult family members. This naturally presents several concerns for parents: What is my child doing online? What sites or apps is (s)he using? Is it affecting his/her development? Is (s)he safe?

These are valid and extremely important questions to consider when raising a family in our digital world. Our team wants to examine some basic social media facts and safety tips that will help your kids stay connected in an appropriate way.  

How Many Children Use Social Media?

Accurately answering this question is surprisingly tricky. Generally speaking, we know that access to social media is easier than ever. According to surveys, 53% of U.S. children now own a smartphone by the age of 11. Additionally, 95% of teenagers are reporting that they have their own phone or access to one. This is significant because mobile traffic recently accounted for 81% of all social media site visits in the United States. So as preteens and teens gain access to phones, they’re also gaining access to social media sites.

The tricky part is knowing how many kids are, in fact, active on social media. For one thing, rather than generally stating the percentage of teens using social media overall, many reports focus on the percentage of teens using a specific social media platform. For example, 72% of teens say they use Instagram; 51% of teens say they use Facebook; 96% of teens say they watch YouTube videos; and 60% of American Snapchat users are under the age of 25.

This “under the age of” statement also raises another gray area in measuring children’s online activities. According to The Office of Communications in the United Kingdom, half of U.K. children aged 11 and 12 now have a social media profile. This is despite most platforms' minimum age being 13 - a limit that is easy to work around simply by lying about a user’s birth year. With this data from the U.K. in mind, it stands to reason that parents in the U.S. are dealing with a similar statistic.

Ultimately, at this time, we can’t be sure exactly how many children - preteens in particular - are using social media. But with teen use well documented, it’s safe to assume that children will inevitably end up online as they enter their teen years.

What Are They Doing On Social Media?

Data and reports show that YouTube, Instagram, and Snapchat are the most popular online platforms among teens. According to interviews in news stories, teenagers use multiple platforms for different purposes, the same as adults. Pinterest is for artistic inspiration and outfit ideas; Tumblr is for writing and reading; Snapchat is for selfies; and so forth.

Common Sense Media, a non-profit organization focused on safe technology and media use among families, also has helpful links on which social media apps are popular among younger users. From texting apps to video and sharing sites, and from microblogging to live-streaming services, there are numerous platforms that each carries its own pros, cons, and safety features. Reading up on all of them is one of the best things a parent can do when learning about the social media habits of their children.

Are Kids Safe On Social Media?

The health and safety risks of using social media are complex and are very interconnected with a child's offline social structure. Due to their long-term impact, mental health-related effects are arguably the most concerning risks associated with social media use.

According to research, Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are all reportedly linked to increased feelings of depression, anxiety, poor body image, and loneliness. But experts have found that rather than the general use of or actual content on social media, the associated energy spent, social pressures, and false appearances created online are the major contributors to this issue. Many young users pour time and energy into their online identities. For female children, it often takes the form of curating a 'perfect' online image, based on societal and peer pressure. For male children, their emphasis is rowdy behavior meant to 'show off' to their peers. 

In these cases and more, experts point out that these acts align with typical adolescent behavior. But through social media, they are more likely to feel pressure to appear a certain way 24/7 - with no time to unplug, relax, and recharge. At the same time, when children scroll through social media, they may feel sadness or pressure in response to seeing their peers' 'great” or “perfect” online lives. Ultimately, anxiety and depression in relation to social media are often the result of internalized pressure. 

Social media abuse can also be more blatant. When asked about the negative effects of social media directly, teens themselves quickly point to bullying and the overall spread of rumors as a leading problem. These incidents can dramatically impact a child or teen. With the right guidance from parents and trusted adults, our children can avoid potential incidents of bullying via their peers.

What Should Parents Do To Help?

It’s important to remember that social media is not inherently evil. It has the potential to support our children as well as create stress for them. From keeping people and families connected to encouraging children to get involved in civic matters of concern, social media can help children feel appreciated and empowered. It’s up to us as adults, however, to help children navigate the digital boundaries that make these benefits outshine the negative aspects of social media.

With this in mind, parents should discuss social media safety with kids via age-appropriate, ongoing conversations with their children about their digital habits. 
  • Have discussions from a young age. Children are using the internet in early elementary school on a regular basis. It is important to help them learn how to be online in a safe and positive way. One helpful guideline is to think of these talks as if you were talking to your child about their responsibilities regarding the family pet, or about something they watched on TV. They are important and a normal part of life.
  • Parents should start talking about the basics at this stage.Topics should include: What do you want to do online? Why do you want to do it? Do you know what apps or sites you want to use to accomplish that? To further help with this conversation, parents can share their own experiences of why they use social media. Don’t hesitate to share both examples of good and bad things that happened while you were online. This will help young children understand and visualize responsible social media use.
  • Parents should talk about personal information. Make sure kids understand the impact of public vs. private posts. A very helpful point to convey is that “the Internet is forever” - i.e. that once online, something can be found forever. Things that are deleted can be restored, and things that are private can be screenshotted and shared. Online strangers are still strangers. Don’t share too much personal information, especially if it makes them uncomfortable. 
  • Parents should set boundaries, but be realistic. Whatever their age, sit down together with your child and agree upon some rules about what they do online and for how long. For example, you can set timers and set screen time limits for apps or devices. You can also set up parental controls to limit their access to harmful or inappropriate content online. Over time, they will hopefully learn how to manage and make good decisions themselves. It’s like teaching your child to cross the road: you make sure they hold your hand when they’re young, but as they grow older you want them to learn how to check for traffic, assess risk, and stay safe on their own. 
  • Parents should “walk the walk” and demonstrate good habits. Leading by example is an effective way to teach children about what healthy digital device use looks like. This includes: establishing technology-free zones in the home that are focused on family time; establishing technology-free hours when no one uses the phone, including mom and dad; and balancing your digital life with your offline life. This last one may be the most important thing of all, as spending time cooking, volunteering, enjoying hobbies, and other “real world” experiences are what will ultimately help children learn how to navigate life offline as well as online.
  • Reassure them they can always talk to you. Keep the dialogue open - ask them if they’ve seen anything online that they don’t understand or are uncomfortable with. Try to stay calm and not to overreact. Encourage them to talk about what they’re feeling and ask questions, instead of keeping it to themselves, 

Social media safety for children can be an overwhelming and concerning topic. But with proper discussions and age-appropriate boundaries, parents can raise their children into teenagers that understand the consequences of their social media habits, increasing their chances of using social media safely.

Still looking for additional resources about this topic? This article from youngminds.org features additional information on talking to your kids about safely using social media. You can also read more about the impact social media has on children with childmind.org.

Finally, if you have specific questions regarding your family’s needs, Capital Area Pediatrics can assist in preparing you for discussions with your kids about this important topic. If talking with us directly seems like the best next step, find the nearest location, or request an appointment as needed.

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