Should kids be social networking?

Learn how to help your children safely navigate a wireless world.

By Scott Steinberg


Parenting expert Scott Steinberg is the creator of the The Modern Parent’s Guide book series and host of popular video show Family Tech: Technology for Parents and Kids. Scott is hailed as a top voice for today’s high-tech generation by dozens of publications from USA Today to Forbes and NPR. A proud parent and working professional, he claims he'll sleep when they start giving away a free lifetime supply of anxiety medication with each new child.

It’s an inescapable fact of high-tech parenthood: Social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and Google+ now enjoy near-ubiquity amongst kids, teens and tweens. But is access to these forms of social media necessarily a negative? It all depends on how you look at it.

First, let’s provide a brief definition: Social networks are dedicated online spaces where users share personalized content (photos, videos, text updates, etc.), and are designed specifically to facilitate direct or indirect interaction amongst members. Some require approvals from each party to be connected; others allow you to follow and observe others’ activities and/or personal information without prior consent. All are immensely public areas of cyberspace.

Used properly, social networks can be a positive force, helping children meet, communicate and form lasting relationships with people from all nations, cultures and backgrounds. But they also amplify the speed at which information is shared, making it essential that kids comport themselves properly, and be cognizant of both the image and information that they’re presenting to the world at large. A 2011 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics actually states that kids can enjoy many benefits from using these services, including better engagement and connectivity, and improved learning opportunities. However, what we reap from social networks is directly proportional to what we sow, making it essential to treat others with respect, engage in healthy online behaviors, and carry ourselves with a respectful image.

Worth noting: Facebook’s terms of service require that children be at least 13 before signing up for an account, for purposes of safety and privacy. However, studies show that millions of kids are utilizing these services, and that many parents actively lie to help them register. That’s not to say that 10, 11 and 12 year-olds, or even younger children, couldn’t theoretically use the service responsibly, if only to share photos with friends and family. Rather, that the decision when, whether and how to let them use the service often rests directly in caregivers’ hands – and is one that shouldn’t be undertaken lightly.

Once over 13 though, it’s unrealistic to assume you can micromanage or control access to such sites. But it is realistic to recognize the importance of educating children about safe computing habits, online dangers and safe social networking practices, and take steps to actively prepare them for the experience. According to surveys, many teens still accept requests from strangers, and have witnessed acts of meanness of cruelty on social networks. However, others show that kids are largely handling themselves well on these services. From a practical standpoint, perhaps the best solution is simply to prepare them as best you can for taking the plunge, and actively monitor their behavior once made, without being overbearing or intrusive.

Ultimately, it bears remembering: Parents shouldn’t be concerned that their children are utilizing social networks. More important to note is when, how and with whom they’re using these services. Of course, once kids login, there’s little chance of going back, and their participation may expose them to content, individuals, and influences you find negative or controversial. But then again, it’s a wide virtual world out there, and one you can’t keep them safe from forever – as always, the proactive approach is recommended. Teach yourself and your children how to safely use social networks, keep running tabs on their usage, and you’ll have less to worry about than by pretending that these services don’t exist, potentially leaving kids to greet their challenges unprepared.