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Recently on Instagram, I exchanged comments with a “friend” who questioned a photo I posted, and at the end of our discussion, he told me my son was in his class. His elementary school class.

Once I got past the horror of having conversed with a little boy about my wild night out, I wondered how young is too young for your own social media account. The thought of my little ones navigating social media alone scares me. So how can parents judge whether their child is ready for social media and how can we prepare them to handle it responsibly?

“It’s easy to say I don’t want my kids on social media, but it’s here and people make careers out of it now, so it’s not something we really have the option of not engaging in,” said Glen Rock-based child and adolescent psychologist Dr. Anne Rothenberg, who advises parents to hold off as long as possible on letting kids have social media accounts.

Parents should follow their child’s account and their child’s friends, she said, and kids should understand that there’s no expectation of privacy when it comes to things shared on social media. (Photo: Getty Images)

While some sites, like Instagram, require you to be 13 years old to open an account, Rothenberg said younger children routinely ask for accounts. 

“Under the age of 12, there are many reasons why a child shouldn’t have their own account,” she said, explaining that children generally don’t have the impulse control to monitor what they’d put on social media, the ability to be reflective of what they’re looking at or the maturity to handle the negativity they may encounter.

Rothenberg said to consider a number of factors when judging whether your child is ready for their own account.

“If your kid’s teachers tell you they blurt things out without thinking, that’s indicative of impulse control, which all kids struggle with,” she said. “But for your child it may mean they’re more likely to post something inappropriate that you wouldn’t want them posting.” 

Next, consider how your child responds to disappointment.

“If your child lashes out when they’re upset and says overemotional things, they may be more likely to post things in a fit of emotion,” she said, adding it’s also a sign they may overreact to online criticism. “When they’re dealing with potentially negative feedback, it may be too traumatic for them to handle.”

If your child wants to be on social media but isn’t ready for their own account, Rothenberg recommends a “learners permit” account, where a parent is in charge and teaches the child how to use it responsibly.

“They can have an ongoing conversation while they post and scroll,” she said, noting the child can use their own name and profile with the understanding that the account is shared with the parent. “Show your child how easy it is to create a picture that doesn’t reflect what’s actually happening, like looking happy when you’re not, so they understand that what they see isn’t always reality.”

Once parents allow their child to have their own social media account, Rothenberg said there are ways to prepare them to handle it.

“At least in the beginning, and certainly for middle-schoolers, kids shouldn’t be alone with their phones at night,” she said. “You want to be able to see what they’re looking at and if something were to arise, you want to be there to see what’s going on.”

Parents should follow their child’s account and their child’s friends, she said, and kids should understand that there’s no expectation of privacy when it comes to things shared on social media.

“If you’ll be checking your child’s private messages, be upfront about that,” she said. 

Disable all location settings on their account, limit advertising, and become knowledgeable about privacy settings, Rothenberg said.

“Remind your child to never share their address or license plate, and never to friend or communicate with anyone they don’t know, because they could be a predator or someone trying to sell them something,” she said.

Make sure your child understands what a screen shot is, Rothenberg said, noting that while things they say aloud may disappear, social media posts can last forever.

“Even if their account is private, someone can screenshot something they wrote and show it to everyone.”

This includes school personnel, she said, adding kids have gotten into serious trouble for things they’ve posted in the spur of the moment, and the impact can last into adulthood, potentially affecting their future career. 

Rothenberg said parents should speak to their child about negative comments.

“Explain that people may say things they’d never have the courage or desire to say to them in person, and that it’s easier to be mean when you’re hiding behind a social media profile,” she said. “And make sure your child knows that if they’re the ones saying something unkind, you’ll likely find out.”

Prepare your child to not get as many likes as they want, she said, which may feel bad.

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“Kids should understand that if they want to put themselves out there, the things they share might not be liked as much as they want, and that can hurt,” she said. “That’s why it’s important for kids to be in activities that are validating in real life, like sports and music, which foster their talents.”

Finally, make sure your child understands that there are real world implications for online activity.

“Your child should ask themselves how they’re feeling, and if they feel really emotional, they should wait to post something,” she said, adding kids should understand that social media isn’t a diary. “It’s not a place to showcase their innermost thoughts and expose their vulnerabilities, because that can open them up to criticism that they aren’t ready for.” 

Social media doesn’t need to be a negative part of a child’s life. If approached safely and responsibly, it can be a fun way for kids to share their world. Just make sure you’re checking in on what they say and do online. I know at least one elementary schooler running around out there on his own.

Contact Jackie Goldschneider at minivanmusings@gmail.com.

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