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Should I let my kid get social media like Instagram or Snapchat before they're 13?

What to ask your kid, and yourself, before downloading.

Have your kids asked for social media yet? Did you tell them you'd think it over (and hope they'd forget about it until college)? Figuring out whether to allow tweens to use social media—and under what conditions—is one of those fun, new problems only we lucky parents of "digital natives" have to worry about. It forces you to think about issues like your kid's maturity level, mental health, and ability to navigate the risks of the online world, not to mention the judgy-ness of other parents if you say yes. There's also the fuzzy legal issue of allowing kids under 13 to get a social media account. Like so much of parenting in these crazy times, there's no right answer for everyone. But there is a right answer for you—and we'll help you find it.

Quick take

  • Thirteen is an arbitrary age. The age 13 rule was never intended to keep young kids safe online. It's the "age of consent" for data tracking, according to the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).
  • Plenty of good reasons to wait. Kids' social, emotional, and cognitive skills really benefit from an extra few years of maturity.
  • But, it's not wrong to say "yes" early. Some young kids do well with online socializing—especially with guidance—and they can suffer socially if all their friends are on it.
  • Do it safely. Whenever you decide your kid is ready, enable strict privacy settings, spot-check their accounts, and check in frequently to make sure their interactions are positive.

Don't you have to be 13 to have social media?

Let's clear something up: The age 13 rule isn't about online safety. And you or your kid won't get in trouble if you don't follow it. Thirteen is the age kids can consent to having their data tracked, as set forth in the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). And with 50% of kids 12 and under on social media, obviously the rule is easy to sidestep. The extra time to mature helps kids grow in a few critical areas that are essential to navigating the information-rich, unpredictable, and drama-heavy social media world.

Why we rate most popular social media apps in the 15 to 16 age range

Snapchat, Instagram, TikTok—the concerns are all slightly different. For some apps, it's the kind of content kids can encounter, while others might enable easy contact with strangers. You can read each review for details before saying yes or no, but here are the developmental issues to consider:

  • Critical thinking. Younger kids don't yet have the skills to reliably decode news and information.
  • Emotional intelligence. The thick skin you need to weather the ups and downs of online socializing takes a while to form.
  • Empathy. Being able to understand others' perspectives is a critical component of healthy online relationships—and younger kids are in the process of developing this skill.
  • Executive function. The ability to think ahead or even understand the impact of your words on other people is still very much a work in progress. Kids with ADHD may need even more time to develop these skills.
  • Susceptibility. Until around age 8, kids don't understand the persuasive intent of content. Tweens can still fail to understand that content, or people, they're interacting with is trying to get them to do something.

I'm still on the fence. What else should I consider?

Though there are plenty of good reasons to wait, it's not wrong to say yes if you think your kid is ready. Social media can be fun and creative. And if all your kids' friends are on it, being left out can crimp their real-world social life. More than an age, you're looking for signs of maturity and responsibility. Your kids don't need to have all these elements in place, but if they're working on them, you can probably trust them to be OK out there, with oversight from you, of course. Here's a checklist before you say yes:

  • They can follow rules. Can they stick to rules such as turning over their phones at night and agreeing to spot checks?
  • They take responsibility for their actions. Do they blame others or get defensive when they're in trouble? This kind of attitude can cause major drama in the online world.
  • They're accountable with their phone. Do they show respect for the device (and the privilege of owning it) by protecting it and being careful with it?
  • They're resourceful. Can they think on their feet and figure out what's needed—and how to get it—when faced with a challenge? If an online friend expressed suicidal thoughts, would your kid know what to do?
  • They stand up for other people—but are smart enough not to get taken advantage of. You want your kid to be able to tell the difference between a friend who really needs support and a potential scammer.
  • They manage their time well. Are they pretty good at balancing screen time with other activities? Social media can be a real time-suck and kids need to be good at turning it off when it's no longer fun.
  • They have hobbies or interests that could be fostered in online environments. Do they love music, art, or fanfiction or have another passion that can connect them with people and broaden their knowledge?

What's the safest way to let my kid do social media?

With your guidance and oversight, kids can use social media safely. Here are the best practices for managing kids' social media at any age:

Ask which social media app they want, and why. This will give you a lot of information about what they already know about the app and what you both may need to learn before moving forward.

Discuss who's OK to friend and follow. It's safest to keep social media friends the same as real-world friends, but some apps make connecting so easy (such as Snapchat) that it's hard to keep a tight circle. If a stranger wants to friend your kid, they should decline (or ask you first).

Review the app's privacy settings. For starters, set the account to private. With a private account, randos can't search for and find your kid (it doesn't prevent strangers from befriending your kid in other ways).

Talk about what's OK to post and what's not OK. Make sure your kid understands the concept of "think before you post." Discuss the impact their posts may have on other people—and help them realize that what they put out into the world can have a different effect from what they intended. Also make sure they know not to post (or do) anything unsafe, illegal, or intimate.

Set up their account on your device. If they want to experience Instagram, but you're not ready for them to manage adding friends and selecting whom to follow, set it up on your own device to keep an eye on things.

Explain that you'll be spot-checking. If they're on their own device, you want to make sure your kid's staying safe, not getting into drama, and not spending too much time on social media. You don't have to insist on having your kid's log-ins; do the spot checks together. Likewise, you don't have to follow or friend your kid on social media (that's the kiss of death for most kids). Following one of their friends, however, is a good way to get some intel on what your kid is up to.

Check in. Ask open-ended questions about their social media lives: What's good? What's not so good? What do you wish you could change? And remember, social media is one of many contributors to kids' overall well-being.

Model social media best practices. Ask permission before posting pictures of your kids; don't get into online arguments; express the good things about your social media life ("I loved seeing pics of cousin Laura's softball game. It makes me feel close even though we don't live nearby").

Don't forget to breathe!

A lot of times, young kids ask for stuff not because they really want it but because they're simply curious. They may be testing you, or they may actually want you to say no so they have "permission" not to engage in something. Try to tune into the feeling behind the ask. Be present for them and remember how much they really need you to take them seriously. Your answer may be no, but allow the discussion to happen. It'll pay off in the end.

Caroline Knorr
Caroline is Common Sense Media's former parenting editor. She has many years of editorial and creative marketing writing experience and has held senior-level positions at Walmart.com, Walmart stores, Cnet, and Bay Area Parent magazine. She specializes in translating complex information into bite-sized chunks to help families make informed choices about what their kids watch, play, read, and do.