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Should I Let My Tween Girl Use Social Media?

Research shows that most girls can thrive online, but those with special vulnerabilities may need extra attention.

Living during a global pandemic is no joke. And the isolation most of us are experiencing is even tougher for tween girls, who take their blossoming social lives very seriously. So it's no surprise if you're considering TikTok, Instagram, and Snapchat sooner than you'd expected, in order to foster the kind of connection and support kids can only get from friends. It's a big decision -- and one that makes sense for lots of tweens and teens (with appropriate precautions). But there's a small subset of young girls who are particularly vulnerable to the negative aspects of social media -- and if yours is one of them, you should wait.

The big question, of course, is how do you know? What makes one kid able to ride out the highs and lows of social media with little negative impact and another likely to feel hurt, threatened, less-than, anxious -- or worse? Research into the link between mental health issues and social media, triggered by the alarming decade-long rise in anxiety, depression, and even suicide among 10- to 14-year-old girls -- especially Black and Latinx girls -- has so far been inconclusive. In fact, most tweens and teens report more positive experiences with social media than negative, and that social media strengthens their relationships.

One tool you can use to help decide whether social media is the right choice for your daughter is to check in on her current sense of well-being. These questions aren't a diagnostic tool, but more of a guide to help you unearth potential markers of emotional vulnerability. If your kid could benefit from having a social media community, by all means, take advantage. But if the answers to these questions lead you down a different path, it's perfectly OK to wait, find other ways for her to connect, and support her entry into social media with more caution and care. (Learn more about social media red flags.)

Does she frequently compare herself to others? If she talks a lot about what friends look like, what they wear, nice things they own, and the like and puts herself down in the process, she may not be ready for the constant stream of perfectly curated lives on Instagram, for example.

Has she been bullied in the past? Online lives are typically extensions of offline lives, so if your daughter has been bullied at school, it's possible it could happen again through comments on TikTok or disappearing messages on Snapchat.

Does she have a history of victimization? Girls who are survivors of abuse could be at a heightened risk of online victimization. Girls who have been sexually assaulted or abused may act out through sexualized social media posts, which can make them a target of pedophiles and traffickers on a variety of platforms.

Does she have trouble making and keeping friends? If the friendship drama is constant in person, using social media means the drama will follow her everywhere her device goes. And if she's socially awkward IRL, it'll probably come off that way online, too (though online communication might be less stressful).

Has she been diagnosed with a mental health disorder? Plenty of kids with anxiety and depression find support online and through social platforms, but for kids with documented struggles, the risks of negative experiences are higher.

If you answered yes to any of the questions above, you may want to wait. When you do introduce social media, do it slowly, carefully, and with extra protections in place.

Here are some tips for how to introduce social media cautiously:

Hold off, if you can

In pre-pandemic times, this advice might have been easier. But maintaining social connections is super important right now -- and unfortunately, online is the best way to keep them going. Go step by step:

  • Take it slow. Social media that's less about "likes" -- for example, Zoom, FaceTime, and regular texting -- are probably OK to start. Social apps centered on social comparison, such as TikTok, can be introduced one at a time after you see how your kid does with them.
  • Find substitutes. Nothing will replace having the cool app everyone's talking about, but finding fun games or quasi-social apps for her to use can help her feel less left out.

Use it together

If you want to give the OK to Instagram, Snapchat, or TikTok, set up the app on your device first and let her use it with you at her side. This isn't going to work forever but can be a good place to start because you can see what's happening and discuss whatever comes up. Remember:

  • Guide, don't judge. Occasionally, narrate the experience to offer perspective on the images she sees. Try: "She looks so happy in this picture. Do you think she really is?"

Create a social media contract

However you decide to introduce social media, it's wise to set rules about when and how she can use it. A few ideas to include:

  • Waking hours only. Turn in devices before bedtime (or use parental controls to shut them down).
  • Balance. Cap her daily social media time at a reasonable limit (enough to allow her to connect with friends, but not too much to trigger unpleasant thoughts and get in the way of other healthy activities).
  • Family bonding. Set aside important family time like at dinner for face-to-face conversations.

Explore settings

Every app has settings you can tweak to work best for your girl. You can usually find them by going to the account profile page and tapping "settings." A few to consider:

  • Private accounts. Most social media allows you to keep your account private, which prevents strangers from contacting you.
  • Notifications. Turning off or limiting notifications can relieve the pressure to be "always on."
  • Mute. If a friend is stirring up drama, you can avoid them for a while by "muting" them in the app.

Check in regularly

Once she starts using social media, make sure to keep checking in about it. Even though you might not be able to track everything she does or sees, you can let her know you're available for when she has trouble. Don't forget:

  • It's a learning experience. Make sure she knows that just because she brings up a problem to you, it doesn't mean she'll lose access to her devices or her friends.
  • Find teachable moments. Have open and honest conversations about what activities make her feel good about herself -- and help her figure out how to do more of them.

Tackle challenges holistically

If problems pop up on social media, don't just focus on the app as the source. Research shows that it's more likely that problems are occurring offline and are amplified or extended through tech tools. What to do:

  • Consider what social media means to her. Resist the urge to shut everything down, because she may be getting more support than problems through her device.
  • Collaborate. Try to listen openly and work together to find a solution. Add ongoing issues into your social media contract.

To learn more about how young people have been using social media and digital health tools to take care of their mental health during the pandemic, see Coping with COVID-19: How Young People Use Digital Media to Manage Their Mental Health.

Sierra Filucci
Sierra is a journalist with a special interest in media and families. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of California at Berkeley, and she's been writing and editing professionally for more than a decade. As her kids get older, Sierra has developed a special fascination with youth culture, including YouTubers, gamers, social media, and slang. When she's not watching Marvel movies and Parks and Recreation with her kids, she enjoys reading young adult books, walking her dog, and streaming dystopian thrillers late at night.