If you give a kid a smartphone, they’re going to want a social media account.
That’s not the start of a storybook. The average age for a kid getting their first smartphone is 10.3. Within a year, a child has likely made four or five social media accounts; by the age of 12, 90 percent of kids are already on social media, according to research by Linda Charmaraman, a senior research scientist who runs the Youth Media and Well-Being Research Lab at Wellesley College.
For parents and caregivers, the decision to let your youngster sign up for TikTok, Instagram, or Snapchat can feel like a daunting milestone. In May, the US surgeon general suggested that social media is contributing to a mental health crisis among the nation’s youth. Around the world, lawmakers have been mounting pressure on the likes of Meta and TikTok to restrict the addictive design features that young users are subjected to. But social media can be valuable to young people too. Digital spaces can be beneficial settings to build friendships and receive social support from peers. So if your kid starts asking about social media (or you suspect that they already have secret accounts), what’s a parent to do?
“Social media is not inherently good or bad,” says Charmaraman, whose research focuses on adolescent development and social media. “It’s really about how people come to use social media, in what ways, and what kinds of supports they have to navigate it in a way that’s right for them.”
It’s absolutely possible for families to foster a healthy relationship with social media by understanding the science, starting conversations about social media and mental health, and setting boundaries on security settings and screen use. Here’s how to get started, whether your kid is 17 or approaching the age of 10.3.
What Does the Research Really Say?
It’s still too soon to determine any long-term effects of social media on youth mental health, says Charmaraman. She encourages parents to take a critical look at the popular studies that draw correlations between teens’ social media use and negative outcomes like depression and anxiety. “When you actually look at the statistical weight of how much we can explain the rise in rates of mental health difficulties due to social media or technology use, it’s less than 1 percent,” she says.
Correlational studies might also discount larger forces that contribute to mental health difficulties, like socioeconomic status or family relationships. For example, if a child is in a household where parents argue frequently, the child may turn to social media more often to seek support or distraction. That doesn’t mean social media is the problem. More restrictions on social media don’t correlate to a happier child, either, Charmaraman points out.
It’s also important to understand that much of the current research on social media and youth well-being has focused on middle-class white families. There’s still more to be learned about how social media impacts nonwhite, LGBT, or neurodivergent youth, or youth in unstable housing situations.
In other words, there’s no scientifically proven, one-size-fits-all social media rule. Tailor the following guidelines to your family and your kids, and be ready to adapt them as your kids grow older and their situations change. Don’t be afraid to set different guidelines for siblings too—kids in the same family could have different needs.
‘Onboard’ Your Kid Onto Social Media
You might want to start earlier than you think. “Don’t assume that your kid isn’t already on social media,” says Charmaraman. Especially if your child has an older sibling, or friends with older siblings, it’s likely that they’ve engaged with social media in some way.
Charmaraman recommends initiating a conversation about social media when a child is in late elementary or middle school, then gradually “onboarding” them onto social media with a lot of structure, rules, and oversight at first. It’s easier to be proactive about social media guidelines than to try to undo bad habits that have been cemented over years. “Prepare, as opposed to repair,” she says. (If you have an older teen, not all hope is lost—but more on that later.)