Dr. Megan Moreno, an adolescent medicine specialist who conducts research on safe Internet use, addresses questions about how to counsel parents with questions on handling Internet and social media with their children.
Thank you to Dr. Matt Allen, a pediatrician at Ballard Pediatrics and a member of Children’s medical staff, for submitting these questions.
Q. It seems like children are using the Internet at earlier and earlier ages. I had a 9-year-old email me last week to see if my 9-year-old could have a play date! Do you have recommendations on minimum ages for cell phone, Internet and social media use? Do social media sites have age restrictions?
A. It’s great to have discussions and set rules about Internet use that will help children appreciate the privilege of using the Internet and learn how to avoid the risks. A few years ago, we did a research study where we asked pediatricians, teachers, parents and teens at what age they think it’s time to begin learning about Internet safety. The average age that they all agreed on was 8 years.
One risk to younger kids using the Internet is the possibility of being exposed to inappropriate content. In our book, Sex, Drugs ’n Facebook, we talk about how to have conversations with younger teens about the possibility of seeing inappropriate content. We suggest an exercise with younger teens that involves doing a specific Google search together and discussing what you find.
Facebook has a minimum age limit of 13, so that is a good starting point for social media. For some teens, getting a Facebook account at that age and having their parents set rules about it can help them learn to use it safely. However, it is important to recognize that not all teens are interested in or ready to start using social media at 13.
Cell phone use depends on the family and their situation. Some families get phones for their children as early as elementary school for safety reasons, such as if the child walks home alone. But young children don’t need a smartphone, and they don’t necessarily even need texting.
If a teen argues that she or he “needs” a phone, that doesn’t mean that the parent has to buy the newest smartphone, or any phone at all. But it’s definitely a good time to discuss the pros and cons of cell phones and how to use them safely.
Some parents establish a set of skills that the teen must have before getting a phone, just like when a young child asks for their first pet and needs to demonstrate that he or she is responsible enough to handle it.
Q. Frequently, it feels like our children know more about social media sites than their parents do. How can we, as parents, teach our teens to be “safe” on the Internet?
A. One helpful strategy we’ve heard is to say to your child, “OK, you are the expert on Facebook. Show me how it works.” Your child gets to be the technical expert. And then you get to be the expert on safety. You let your teen teach you about the Timeline and Events on Facebook, and then you get to teach safety behaviors.
Setting this up as an exchange of expertise can allow conversations to be more enjoyable for parents and children. If you show your child respect for their expertise, it is more likely that they will be interested and respectful of the safety information that you provide.
Q. What is the best way for parents to monitor Internet and social media use by their teenagers?
A. First, I suggest that parents set up times when they will look through Internet activity with their child and discuss what they are seeing. Setting up those meetings on a reliable schedule can help a child understand this is a topic that is important to the parent, which will help Internet safety become a topic that is important to him or her.
Second, I suggest being inquisitive. Parents can ask questions about what their child likes to do online. It’s also helpful to ask directly if the child has experienced any scary situations. If so, the parent can talk through what happened and discuss how to avoid and handle these situations.
Q. Do you have any last tips for families developing “ground rules” regarding Internet, social media or cell phone use?
A. Here are examples of ground rules that some families use:
- Follow the tried-and-true “don’t talk to strangers” rule online.
- Don’t download images or files from an unknown source.
- Set security limits on Facebook, MySpace or Twitter accounts.
- Don’t have any online friends who you haven’t met offline.
- Have a parent present if the child wants to meet an online friend.
- Encourage the child to come to the parent if they feel uncomfortable about something they see online, in social media or on their phone.
Q. How can parents learn more?
A. Here are some ideas:
- Follow the Teenology 101 blog at Seattle Children’s. It often includes tips and new information about teens and social media.
- Read our book, Sex, Drugs ’n Facebook, available on Amazon and in local bookstores. The book includes input from researchers, pediatricians, parents and adolescents themselves and is a guide for parents to help their teens develop healthy Internet use habits.
- Learn more about our research on our website.
- Visit other websites: