When you’re a dad, parenting questions often come up that you struggle to find an answer to. Since other parents are the worst and Google will send you down a rabbit hole of paralyzing, paranoid terror, we’re here to help by putting those questions to the experts. This is “Basic Dad,” an advice column for dads who feel stupid about asking for basic advice.
The Very Basic Concern
Last week, my 10-year-old son asked me if he could have his own Instagram account because, and I quote, “my friend Seth has one.” My first thought was, “Of course Seth has one, his parents would let him play with a chainsaw if he threw a temper tantrum over it,” but instead, I reserved my judgment and assured my son that I’d discuss it with his mother.
This, of course, was a brush-off. My approach to the internet and parenting has been to try my best to delay the inevitable takeover it will eventually have over our lives. Sure, we have a Facebook account where we share family pictures, and yes, my son knows what YouTube is, but I’m determined not to give him his own phone for at least a few more years. And, as far as getting him his own accounts, my gut instinct says, “Hell no.”
The incident, though, prompted a question: When should I start to allow my kid to have access to these kinds of things? And when he does finally do so, would he be better served by me setting up those accounts for him now, to be sure he has his own Twitter handle, URL, etc.? While it’s obvious that you have to monitor your kid and the internet, it’s not really clear as to when you can start to allow them to enter the digital community.
The Expert Advice
Maura Quint, a mother of two with more than 81,000 Twitter followers: This is a new thing that we’re having to grapple with now as parents. We’re all pioneers in this as there’s no established right way to go about it like there is with putting your kid to sleep, for example, where there are countless books on the topic. For me though, I have a four-year-old and a six-year-old, and I generally think that parents shouldn’t be making their children any social media accounts, at least when it comes to younger children.
As someone with a large social media following, one of the things I had to figure out early on was how to protect myself in terms of what I want known about me online, so I think it’s a strange thing that you’d want to start a trail for your kid online before they have the ability to choose what they want. Assuming these same platforms are still around, I think, as an adult, your child might want to maintain their own identity, yet if someone had already created a trail of them, who knows what’s going to be there? I really feel that it removes their ability to define themselves later.
Veronica Acevedo, school social worker: Any kind of social media accounts should be saved for high school. There have been a number of studies that show that chronic use of social media can have a negative impact on self-esteem, and this is especially concerning during middle school years when it’s such a crucial and complicated point in a child’s development. Adding social media at this time will more likely further complicate things.
One issue, of course, is cyber-bullying, and the thing about that is that bullying is harder nowadays because it never goes away. Before the internet, children would hopefully at least have a safe home to return to, but now, bullying is no longer confined to the schoolyard. They go home, and it continues online with Facebook or Twitter. They can’t escape it.
Additionally, with platforms like Instagram and Facebook, everyone, of course, puts up photos of their best selves, and this can have a harmful effect on children with low self-esteem. They may not realize that the images account for only one moment in time or even just a projection of what they want people to perceive. Additionally, they lack the judgement to stop and limit their own usage, so they may go very deep into that hole.
By high school, while you should still monitor their usage, they’re naturally entering the next level of development, so they’re supposed to be a little bit more independent and better able to manage the nuances of relationships.
Al Vernacchio, sexuality educator: I’m a fan of family time online and family social media accounts for elementary school age kids. Here, under the direct supervision of a caring adult, children can begin to see the uses, benefits and drawbacks of being online. Whether playing an online game, looking at a new website or sending a Facebook message or Instagram post to grandma, elementary school kids should never be online without constant adult supervision.
Late middle schoolers might be allowed a trial run with their own Facebook page or Instagram account, but parents must have complete access to the account at all times, and adults and kids should review the account together every few days. Also, clear ground rules must be set regarding what to do if kids see sexual or sexually explicit material. The latest data suggests kids first encounter this material online (whether intentionally or accidentally) by age 11. A rule that the child won’t be in trouble if they immediately tell you about encountering such material is a good one. It allows for conversation about the material and for you to give a framework for it that fits your family’s values.
High school age kids can be given increasing freedom online but should never be completely unsupervised. It’s during this time that viewing online pornography, sexting and seeking out information about sex online is a real possibility for most kids. We can’t really prevent these things from happening. Even if we cut off all online access when kids are with us, they’re out of our sight and within easy reach of technology more and more. As long as a child is a minor (and as long as a parent is paying for the device and the online access), adults should have access to the devices, accounts and browsing histories. This isn’t to set up a “gotcha!” moment, but rather to create opportunities to reward young adults for responsible online activities and curb inappropriate uses through dialogue.
Theresa Russo, PhD in human development and family studies: Generally, age 13 is the requirement for sites like Facebook and that’s with good reason. I don’t think there is any great need for younger kids to have their own account, as you can have a family account so that kids can stay connected with family and friends. Of course, lots of younger kids pressure their parents into creating accounts earlier. Whenever you decide to do this, it all comes down to monitoring their usage.
There should be rules, like “I have to be a friend, and I have to monitor your phone.” This should be done at least weekly, and you should also check to be sure no passwords have been changed. This is easier when they’re younger, but as they get older, they’ll want that less and less, so they may create other usernames and identities so that their parents don’t know. One important way to protect your kids is to keep up with this technology yourself, even if you don’t want to. Otherwise, they’ll quickly surpass you, and you won’t be able to protect them.
When enforcing these rules, remember that it’s not just about saying “no,” it’s about saying “why.” All along, the message to your kids shouldn’t be “I don’t trust you.” Instead, the message is, “There are a lot of dangers out there and I need to keep you safe,” because it’s not about just trusting them, it’s about trusting every person they connect with over social media.