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When Should Teens Start Using Social Media?

Given the presence of iPhones and laptops galore, parents often want to know when they should let their teens start using social networks or other connected tools. It’s hard to know when teens, ages 13-17, should start doing anything online, let alone using these sometimes confusing and vast technologies, as we note in Parenting High-Tech Kids: The Ultimate Internet, Web, and Online Safety Guide. Happily, the following points and insights can help you gain a deeper understanding into what’s right for your teens when it comes to social media, apps, and high-tech devices.

Like it or not, the teen years are the time when your kids will find themselves knee-deep in the process of permanently setting out on their own online, and forging a virtual identity, even though a few years yet remain before they’re ready to forge their own identity in real-life. And just as a parent’s duties do not end the day a child leaves the nest, so too must they continue even after you set your child free on the Internet.

For today’s kids, the 13th birthday marks a major high-tech milestone, as this is the age not only at which many children receive their first cellular phone – it also signals that they’re old enough to sign up for Facebook. Kids may also begin getting their own laptops or computers to use for schoolwork, and be faced by online or connected classwork and assignments. In fact, 93% of American teens aged 13 to 17 use the Internet, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, and 66% of children get their first cell phone before they’re 14. That’s a lot of online access and computing power to place in kids’ hands, reinforcing the need for parents to play a pivotal role in shaping positive interactions around technology.

To this extent, parents should still maintain widespread access to kids’ devices, and know how to (with a little detective work, if necessary) track just what teens have been up to on these gadgets. By now, it will hopefully be a long-running and well-established family policy that kids have willingly abided by. But by the same token, parents must also be watchful for signs of concern or duplicity, and vigilant as to potential dangers or issues that may be arise as a result of teens’ growing online interests and experimentations. If you’ve made a running commitment to educating and enlightening them about technology’s upsides and challenges, reinforced healthy computing habits and behaviors, and instilled a sense of self-awareness and savvy, you’ve hopefully by now raised a responsible and productive digital citizen. Nonetheless, while trusting in our children is imperative, it’s also important to maintain a healthy sense of skepticism, and remain alert to potential issues – like all of us, even the brightest and best apples can and will make mistakes sometimes.

As long as we’re reasonable with our concerns, and remain respectful of our children’s growing sense of smarts and independence, it’s possible to strike a healthy balance here, and provide a safety net that’s there to gently catch them, prop them back up, and provide a reassuring pat of support when – more likely than not – they eventually fall.

Video Games: According to a recent study from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the majority (61%) of teens played video games for less than 7 hours a week – however, 39% reported playing more than that, with roughly one in ten saying that they play games for 20 hours a week or more. Like older tweens, teens who do play games will also by now be well-acquainted with titles whose emphasis is placed on controversial subjects, mature gameplay, and head-to-head multiplayer connectivity via online services.

The ESRB even maintains a T for Teen rating for games that are a bit more sophisticated and deal with more serious themes than those appropriate for younger audiences, but still falls short of titles rated M for Mature, which are reserved for ages 17 and up. T-rated selections can include the likes of wrestling simulations, first-person shooters, selections containing salty language and cartoon violence, or other outings you may take odds with. Talk to your kids about the types of games that you feel are acceptable for them to play, both at home and at their friends’ houses, and create and enforce house rules concerning them. Companion volume The Modern Parent’s Guide to Kids and Video Games provides a detailed look at the issues parents of teen gamers face today, and how to address them.

Internet and Web Access: In addition to other forms of online connectivity that children will have previously embraced, the use of video chat is rising amongst teenagers, according to recent studies by Ericsson – a point parents should be aware of, given users’ ability to film and share footage of themselves privately or publicly in real-time. While most teens will use popular free services such as Skype for brief, informal, and largely innocent chats, others may use popular videoconferencing programs for more lascivious purposes, or forget that the camera’s on and speak out of turn or make disparaging remarks despite the fact they’re being filmed.

Vital to ponder as well when thinking about teens and issues surrounding online connectivity: The majority of Web access is not happening via traditional computers. Somewhat frighteningly, given how difficult its usage can be to monitor, the mobile Internet, whether accessed from smartphones or tablet PCs, is suddenly the primary way that kids are now connecting online. Lest you worry, however, the vast majority of interactions are perfectly safe and upright. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, here’s what teens are doing online:

  • 62% get news about current events and politics online.
  • 48% have made online purchases like books, clothing or music, up from 31% who did so in 2000.
  • 31% of online teens receive health, dieting or physical fitness information from the Internet.
  • 17% report that they use the Internet to gather information about health topics that are hard to discuss with others such as drug use and sexual matters.

E-mail: While 13 year-old children can now officially sign up for e-mail accounts, recent research is finding that kids are using this form of communication with growing infrequency. According to a recent comScore report, use of e-mail dropped 31% amongst 12 to 17 year-olds, following a decline of 59% the year prior. And college-age individuals using e-mail less and less as well. “While the significant decline among teens represents a continuation of a similar trend observed last year, that 18 to 24 year-olds are now moving away from webmail suggests that a larger and more permanent shift in e-mail usage may be occurring,” says the report. The fact is, with kids connecting via smartphones and tablets significantly more than through PCs, the need for e-mail is declining drastically as many are switching over to texting or instant messaging as a primary communications tool instead.

Social Networks: Now that teenagers can finally, legitimately register for Facebook, it’s important to realize: Research is finding that they use the social network in very different ways than adults, and in fact would give use of the service up before jettisoning other forms of communication. A recent study by Ericsson provides further insights, as when asked what form of communication they would miss most if it was taken away, the clear majority of teen respondents replied “face to face.” Less than half answered with texting, putting it in a distant second place. And Facebook was only the fourth most-popular answer after mobile phones – hardly a star turn for social networks. While the study found that kids enjoyed meeting in real life (or IRL as they know it), because of body language and nonverbal cues, however, it’s worth keeping in mind when pondering the cultural shift… Teens also reported that voice phone calls are full of “awkward pauses” and see them largely as a communications tool for adults.

Cell Phones and Mobile Devices: According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 75% of teens now have a cell phone. Even younger adolescents are getting in on the act, with 58% of 12 year-olds now owning a handset as well. Intriguingly, teenagers are likely to have many, if not all, peers from their school contained within their Facebook friends list, and because of this, they prefer services like texting when they want to have one-on-one conversations with friends.

Anne Collier of ConnectSafely.org further reports that 87% of teens text, and send more than 50 texts a day, which equates to at least 1500 such messages a month. One third of teens send more than 100 texts a day, or at least 3000 every 30 days. In fact, the average teen exchanges more than 7 texts per waking hour – talk about sore thumbs. So be advised: With texting quickly becoming the primary means of communication amongst this audience, simply monitoring cell phone bills or situating computers in common areas may not be nearly enough to prevent unwanted communications from occurring.

Tips:

  • Even though your kids are becoming more independent by this stage, it’s important to still monitor and be aware of their online activities. Continue to enforce a transparent password policy, review the sites and services that they visit, and make sure that they know you are actively doing so. Be open and honest with them about issues that concern you, and let them know that you’re always willing to discuss any thoughts they have about their own concerns as well.
  • Google your kids’ names regularly to see if any negative or unwanted mentions show up. Make sure to do the same for any usernames they utilize as well. Consider doing so with them as well from time to time, and also don’t be afraid to Google your own name in shared company (don’t worry, your children have probably done it already). Explain everything that’s out there, positive and negative, and use personal anecdotes to help them learn from some of the mistakes you may have made yourself and avoid doing the same.
  • Be aware of kids’ activities on social networks. While it’s easy to connect with accounts you know about, be vigilant and mindful of the potential for kids to create alternate accounts in order to communicate and conduct clandestine activity away from your watchful eyes. 
  • It’s a good idea to purchase apps, Facebook credits and online purchases with gift cards instead of using your own credit card so as to safeguard sensitive personal information. In the event of identity theft, you’ll be potentially shielded from exorbitant charges and loss of data. Likewise, preset spending caps or limits can also help minimize unwanted expenses. As kids get older, they may start working their first job, and begin enjoying access to their own discretionary funds as well, which they may wish to use to buy video games, apps, music, movies and more. Monitor their spending habits to watch for irresponsible behavior, and offer to help turn cash into gift cards as a way to regulate the amount that they’re able to spend online. It’s a smart choice to make kids aware that you must authorize any downloads, especially purchases, as well. When it comes to online shopping, let kids know that you have the final say and that you’ll be watching.
  • As your teen grows up and heads off to college, it can be tough to let go. But hopefully the sense of responsibility and care you’ve instilled as they’ve grown up will carry over to safe computing habits and behaviors, and smart decision making, as they operate online outside the periphery of your watchful eyes. Realistically, once they’ve left the nest, it’s hard to maintain control – so before kids head off to college, it’s vital to make sure that you’ve done everything you can to set them up for success. Maintaining a commitment to lifelong learning isn’t just the cornerstone of online safety and digital citizenship: It’s also the best lesson you can teach your children, and hopefully one they’ll pass along someday to their own digital kids.

For more, also be sure to see Parenting High-Tech Kids: The Ultimate Internet, Web, and Online Safety Guide.

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