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Kids and Social Media: A Guide to Getting Your Kids Internet Ready

7 Jun 2015 – 11:52 AM EDT

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With computers and cell phones everywhere, kids are starting to ask for their own Facebook and Instagram accounts long before they reach high school. As a parent, there’s a lot you need to know about kids and social media to prepare for how you’ll handle their online behavior.

Age Restrictions

The first thing you need to know about kids and social media is minimum account ages. This is usually found in the Terms of Service and for most social media platforms the minimum age is 13. (Youtube is 18, but allows children as young as 13 with parental consent. Yikyak and Vine are 17.) If you’re considering allowing your child who’s below the minimum age to open an account on one of these platforms, you may want to reconsider.

The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) sets up protections for websites and apps that appeal to children. If a child under 13 joins a social network below their minimum age, they won’t receive those protections. COPPA was set up to prohibit websites and advertisers from getting a wide variety of personal information including name, location, and photos from children. COPPA-governed sites also have rules and limitations for the kinds of advertising they can show children. You can learn more in this full guide to COPPA.

If you decide to expose your child to social media under the age of 13, a parent should set up and own the account so a child can only access with your permission and under your watch. If your child has access to their own cell phone, be sure to install a parental control app to allow you to monitor what apps they can download.

If your child is frustrated that they’re not allowed their own accounts, introduce them to kid-friendly social networks that will help introduce them to social media in a more protected environment.

Starting Kids on Social Media

Once your child is the minimum age for most social networks, it’s important that you know what they’re getting into. Set up your own account on any platform your child wants to access so that you can follow them there and so you can get better acquainted with the network itself and what your child is seeing. Be aware that many social networks allow users to block or limit what others see. For example, your child could add you to a Restricted list on Facebook or specifically tell Facebook not to show you a status update they don’t want you to see.

Remember more is happening than what you see in the update stream. Most networks, even Instagram, allow people to share direct messages or set up secret groups and communicate privately. It’s often in these groups that bullying and harassment take place.

Every family will find a different balance, but the only way you can truly monitor your child’s social media accounts is if they allow you to login and access it yourself. On the other hand, this may mean your child feels like they lack privacy and could lead to other secret accounts they don’t show you.

Because of the potential for harassment online and the need for teenage privacy, it’s important that you and your teen set up clear guidelines about what they’re allowed to do and how much access you’ll have. Many social networks have a guide for parents and families like this one at Instagram, and it can be helpful to talk through it together. Good communication can help your family negotiate the best plan for you and build trust together.