We live in a world where our baby’s first steps are just as likely to be posted online as they are to be saved in the baby book, so is it any wonder our kids are clamoring to get on social media? According to this study from the University of Michigan, one-third of kids ages seven to nine and half of all 10- to 12-year-olds are already using sites like TikTok, Instagram and Snapchat. And with all the news about how social media may damage kids’ self-esteem, potentially attract sexual predators and encourage online bullying—exactly how worried should parents be?
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“Parents are generally concerned about kids’ safety when it comes to online predators,” says Patrick Quinn, a former teacher and the official parenting expert for Brainly.com, an online homework help site run by teachers and kids. “But the bigger danger is the matter of kids not being able to realize that everything on the internet isn’t exactly true. Everybody wants to put their best foot forward online.”
Consequently, self-esteem can take a hit. According to a 2019 John Hopkins study, teens who spent more than three hours a day on social media were likely to see negative mental health impacts. That said, Quinn believes there are plenty of redeeming qualities of social media platforms. Finding connections and community support, for instance, can be important, especially for teens and tweens who feel isolated or different.
So what’s a parent to do? According to experts, best practices include installing good parental controls, setting clear rules and teaching kids what good “digital hygiene” means. “We recommend sitting down with your child and talking through any new apps they’d like to download,” says Titania Jordan, Chief Parenting Officer for the BARK parental control app and the author of Parenting in a Tech World. “Discuss the pros and cons of each, keeping in mind that ‘because everyone else has it’ isn’t the best of arguments. But be sure to listen to what they have to say. Their research and passion may surprise you.” Now then: What’s a Snap? How do you Twitch? Who can DM your kids? From Facebook and Instagram to Twitch and Discord, here’s the lowdown on the most popular social media for kids.
How to Manage Your Kids’ Social Media Usage
Ask your child to sign a social media contract (we love this one from iMom) that lays out the general rules for what kids can and can’t do on social media—and what will happen if they break these rules. If you’re not sure your child can police themselves, parental control apps can help by setting bedtimes, setting screen limits and blocking apps or sites you don’t want your child to use.
“When you make your expectations clear, your child will have a better understanding of what they can do and when,” Jordan says. Also, when your child signs up with a social site, make sure they add you as a “friend” so that you can see and monitor what they are posting. Kids should also give parents their login information so they can check up on what they’re doing online.
Some things to talk about before letting your kids loose on any social media platform:
- Knowing the difference between “real-life” friends and online “friends”
- Understanding that pictures posted on social media don’t tell the whole story (and that, despite how it looks, nobody has a perfect life)
- The dangers of misinformation
- Understanding that strangers who contact them online may not be who they say they are
- The importance of never disclosing personal information online
- Make sure to make space for “digital downtime” to keep life balanced
- Understanding that anything you put online may be seen and shared by others
- How parental control and privacy settings within individual apps can keep them safe
Top Tips for Social Media Safety by Platform
Kids on Instagram
What is it? An image-sharing site that allows users to view and post pictures and videos.
What do kids do on Instagram? Share their photos and view their friends' feeds, as well as keep tabs on celebrity feeds and follow users (often strangers) with similar interests. Users can also communicate via direct messages (DMs).
What parents should know: Instagram has been under attack for allegedly causing low self-esteem, especially in young girls. To combat this, parents should have a serious conversation with their kids about how what they see on Instagram isn't actually "real life." Show them how filters can make people look different/better/thinner—and how everyone has flaws to hide (this enlightening short video from Ditch The Label explains the "Insta-Lie" perfectly). There is also a "disappearing message" feature that lets kids send a timed photo or video messages that users can only view once before they disappear (though screenshots can still be taken), so many kids use this feature to hide things they may not want their parents (or others) to see.
How to safeguard kids: Common Sense Media rates Instagram as best for ages 15 and up because of its easy access to mature content, as well as access to strangers. When you do decide to let your kids use the site, make sure they add you as a friend (create your own Instagram account if you don't already have one) so you can see what they are posting. You can also make your child's account private, so only their friends can see their posts. To do this, go to Settings, then Privacy, and toggle on the Private mode (You can't lock this setting, so know that your kids can always change it back.).
Kids on TikTok
What is it? The hottest social media site for teens and tweens, TikTok has racked up more than 3 billion downloads, with youngsters everywhere clamoring to show off their antics or watch short, punchy video clips. The app is supposed to be for kids 13 and up, but younger users can easily skirt this rule by lying about their birthday when they sign up. Also: Like YouTube, kids don't need an account to view videos, but they do need one to post them.
What do kids do on TikTok? Watch endless video loops of dance routines, makeup tutorials, homemade music videos, cooking demos, physical stunts and more. Videos can be up to 10 minutes long, though most are only a few seconds. Creative or enterprising kids can make their TikTok videos by uploading videos from their devices or by recording, editing and adding effects (as well as music and filters) directly in the app—making it a great place for self-expression.
What parents should know: Profanity and sexually suggestive content are commonplace, even with parental controls enabled, according to ProtectYoungEyes.com. The app also has direct messaging features, meaning that kids can easily contact and be contacted by strangers. That said, users ages 13-15 automatically have the following features set:
-No direct messages
-Automatic private accounts
-Comments can be made from only “Friends” or “No One.”
-No videos can be remixed or downloaded.
How to safeguard your kids: TikTok has parental control settings, as well as “Digital Wellbeing." Go to the settings tab in the app on your child’s device and click on “Family Pairing” to set restrictions and screen time allowances. If you are giving your child your phone to use, go to the app, click settings, click on “Digital Wellbeing” to set time limits and set to “Restricted” mode.
Kids on Snapchat
What is it? A camera tool and social messaging app that lets users send "snaps" (messages) to each other, mainly in the form of pictures. Pictures and messages are (supposedly) automatically deleted after they are viewed—but this doesn't stop the receiver from taking a screenshot, so kids should know it's still possible their messages will be shared or reposted.
What do kids do on Snapchat? Younger kids will be all about the camera filters and augmented reality elements that allow them to take fun pics of themselves with glamorous makeup, bunny ears, or a big cat sprawled on top of their heads. Older kids will likely use Snapchat as a messaging tool—sending Snaps to friends and posting photos to their “story," which disappears after 24 hours.
What parents should know: Kids may be exposed to inappropriate content on the Story feed, where they swipe through everything from up-close pimple popping videos to dance tutorials. Also, it may be hard to lull kids away from the app since users are rewarded for "Snapstreaks"—when two users send Snaps to each other at least once within 24 hours for more than three consecutive days. These reward badges are removed when the streak misses a day, so kids are incentivized to keep the conversation going.
How to safeguard kids: Parents can go into the app to prohibit location sharing (go into settings, go to “See My Location,” and set it to “Ghost Mode.”). Parents can also specify who can view or contact their kids. Parents should explain to kids never to send pictures they wouldn’t want their whole school to see (because it doesn't really "disappear"). Also, parents need to explain that kids should never post pictures of friends without similar consent.
Kids on Discord
What is it? An online discussion/chat forum, originally designed as a way for gamers to chat while playing a video game. While the site is still mostly geared toward gaming, it has evolved into a forum to explore any subject-specific interests and group audio chats with friends.
What do kids do on Discord? Talk to other users about topics of interest (mainly gaming, anime or music). Discord offers voice chatting, video chatting and text messaging (it's Skype mixed with Reddit), and users can either join or create public or private groups (called “servers“) about whatever specific topic they want to talk about.
What parents should know: Being a user-generated site, kids may be exposed to inappropriate content including swearing and graphic language and images (though there are groups with rules against these things).
How to safeguard kids: While there are no parental controls, Discord does have some safety/privacy settings to control who can direct message or add your kids as friends. Its "Safe Direct Messaging" feature is supposed to delete any direct messages with explicit content (although, according to Common Sense Media, this isn't foolproof). To be safe, instruct kids to only accept invitations from and participate in private servers with people they already know.
Kids on Reddit
What is it? An online discussion board where users can post questions, start conversations and share pictures and videos of things that interest them (its slogan is "Dive into anything"). While the site is designed for adults, it's easy for kids to explore, even without signing up (though they need to be signed up to post questions).
How to safeguard kids: Reddit is meant for adults, so it's recommended to use filters to block the app until your child is at least 13 (given the adult nature of some posts). If you'd like to let your kids explore the site, parental control apps such as Bark can send you alerts if your child is exposed to or posting anything concerning (including drugs, sex, violent or suicidal ideation).
Kids on Facebook
What is it? With 2.74 billion users (and counting), Facebook—now part of Meta—is the most popular social media site out there, offering an easy way to share and view photos, videos, opinions and thoughts. While the app is meant for users 13 and up, according to the BBC, it's estimated that more than 20 million of its users are younger than this. Also, even if they don't have an account of their own, anyone can view posts on Facebook (you only need an account to post or contact other users).
Note: Facebook is so adamant about its 13+ age limit that there is a page on its site devoted to reporting and deleting accounts believed to be for children (useful if you've banned the app from your house and find that your child set up an account anyway).
What do kids do on Facebook? Share and view photos and videos of themselves and others, keep up with their favorite celebrities, watch videos of interest and message each other.
What parents should know: Kids can easily be exposed to inappropriate content—as well as be contacted by strangers. Also, like Instagram, users can easily become obsessed with "keeping up" their image and trying to maintain the illusion of a "perfect life." Parents should keep in mind that if their kids are on Facebook, they can easily see all the things you've ever posted (something to think about if you've ever posted exasperated posts about your parenting journey or baby pics that would mortify your kids today).
How to safeguard kids: If you allow your child to have a Facebook account (preferably at 13), make sure it's set up as a private account to limit who can see their posts, photos and profile. To do this, go to the Privacy section of the Settings menu and pull the drop-down options to "Friends," "Only me," or "Close friends" (which requires you to enter specific names).
Facebook Messenger Kids
What is it? An app for kids that lets users talk via text and video chat. While Facebook itself maintains the 13 and up standard, Messenger Kids skirts this rule because parents set up and manage the account on behalf of their children. Bark calls this setup—where kids use the app, but parents manage every aspect of it — "like training wheels for a child’s first social media experience." This lets parents see who their child chats with, how much time they're spending on the app and every image they send/receive. Note: This is the only app on the list that was designed for kids under 13.
What do kids do on Facebook Messenger Kids? Talk and video chat with friends.
What parents should know: Parents must have a Facebook account to set up Messenger for their children. And while kids won’t have a public profile, parents can allow their name and profile photo to be visible to others (or not). Another important thing to note is that kids can't send links or YouTube videos through the app, which keeps them safe from iffy content.
How to safeguard kids: If you're worried about excessive use or unwanted friends, you set in-app time limits, approve or deny new friend requests and remotely log your child out.
Kids on Twitch
What is it? A live-streaming site, primarily for gamers. Any kid who's obsessed with video games will likely be obsessed with watching other kids play video games—which is exactly what they do on Twitch.
What do kids do on Twitch? Watch live streams, most of which are devoted to gaming. If they're logged in, they can talk directly to the streamer and ask questions about the game (which may or not be answered, depending on how many people are watching the stream). For a fee, kids can also broadcast themselves playing.
What parents should know: While the app doesn't technically allow threatening language or sexually explicit content, kids will still likely be exposed to plenty of profanity in the chats, which stream live beside the video. Kids don't have to sign up to watch live streams, but they do to chat. Users can also send "Whispers" (direct messages) to other registered users, though this can be restricted in the app's settings.
How to safeguard kids: Twitch doesn't offer parental controls, but logged-in users can set chat filters to limit discrimination, sexually explicit language and profanity (though, according to Common Sense Media, these filters aren't foolproof.).