Gauging when your teen is ready for social media

Robert Garrett was quizzed about his family’s decision to keep their teens of social media on commercial TV.

To give your teenager access to social media, or not? Some parents bemoan their teenager’s addiction to it; others wonder whether they’re depriving their child by excluding them from the online action.

Too many parents blindly sign their teenager up to social media because ‘everyone else has it’. But what do we know of the pros and cons of teenagers using social media? The oldest social media platform – Facebook has only been around 15 years, and teenagers-preferred platform – Instagram, 8 years. However, 10-15 years is a reasonable period of time to see some patterns emerging in a number of studies which I’ll share in a moment.

Our decision to keep our kids off social media (at least for now), recently resulted in an invitation to join the conversation on Channel Nine’s A Current Affair program.

Of the several hundred people who commented on the story on ACA’s Facebook page, 62% supported our position, while others accused us of everything from condemning our kids to become the ones sitting in the corner of the playground with no friends, to damaging our kids’ future employment prospects. Quite a few said that we were naïve, and our kids obviously had hidden social media accounts that we didn’t know about.

We were however, encouraged by quite a number of families who commented that they also have kept their kids off social media, adding that they’re all the better for it.

As a blogger who uses social media to reach tens of thousands of people every month, clearly, I’m not against social media. So why have we taken this position? We’ve said that this is not a ‘you’ll never have access’ decision, so under what circumstances would we give our kids access to social media?

Hold off

The advice and research from those that deal with the consequences on a daily basis – teachers, police, psychologists, cyber experts and counsellors – is that the longer we can keep our kids off social media, the better. The dramatic increase in rates of teenage depression in recent years which correlates directly with the rise in access to smartphones and social media (see here for more). should cause parents to look a little deeper into these tools we’ve placed in our kids’ hands.

Developing brains

The prefrontal cortex region of the brain is responsible for our ability to plan and think about the consequences of actions, solve problems and control impulses. Because it doesn’t fully form until our early twenties, our children are more likely to rely on the amygdala when making decisions (this part of the brain is associated with emotions, impulses, aggression and instinctive behaviour – see here). Combine this tendency toward impulsiveness with the challenges of social media and the fallout can be messy.

The research from the UCLA Brain Mapping Centre shows the addictive response of a teenager’s not-yet-fully-formed brain to ‘likes’ on social media. In his book Stealing Fire, Steven Kotler goes so far as to say we’re essentially putting addictive drugs into the hands of our kids. He explains that when we check our phone, the uncertainty of what we might find in terms of texts or responses to our latest post, ‘results in a 400% spike in dopamine — roughly the same amount of dopamine a person gets from cocaine.’

Cal Newport (author of Digital Minimalism) says the research shows, “If you spend large portions of your day in a state of fragmented attention [addicted to checking social media], this can permanently reduce your capacity for concentration.” Rather than social media becoming a tool that is important for staying relevant and connected in the 21st Century, it has the potential to undermine our ability to concentrate and undertake the highly valued, deep-thinking skills that employers will increasingly seek as artificial intelligence takes over the more routine tasks in the workplace.

Gambling tactics

I recently learned that many social media platforms employ Attention Engineers, who use gambling principles to keep users online as long as possible for the purpose of monetising our attention and data with advertisers. As a result, ‘tags’ and ‘likes’, that weren’t originally part of Facebook, were introduced and they exponentially increased the amount of time people spent on social media, according to Cal Newport.


Before social media, parents knew many of their child’s friends and therefore the key voices influencing them. With hundreds of ‘friends’ on social media, it’s impossible for parents to know who is influencing their child. Unfortunately, on social media it’s easy to set up a fake profile and as a result, our children could be unknowingly putting themselves at risk by engaging online with predators (this week’s follow up story on ACA about online predators and e-safety is a ‘must-see’ for every parent).

Do we become those Christian parents who are known for the long list of things they’re against? I don’t think that’s practical and is more likely to lead to rebellious and deceitful behaviour.

Sexting & bullying

Perhaps one of the biggest concerns is cyber-bullying. Sitting safely behind their screens, people make nasty comments that they would never dare say to a person face-to-face, and the resulting embarrassment and shaming can be very public. A 2014 survey of over 2,000 high school students (Years 10-12) found that 26% reported sending a sexually explicit photo of themselves. Not only is the practice of sharing pornographic images illegal, but an image that might have been intended for a particular recipient can quickly and easily be shared with a wide audience with long-lasting consequences.

A Christian perspective

How does our faith help us as parents in making decisions about what’s right for our children? As Christians, we’re encouraged not to conform to the patterns of this world (Rom 12:2). So, we try not to be swayed whenever our children come to us using the justification that ‘everyone’s doing it’ or ‘everyone has it’. For example, just because the different social media platforms have nominated 13 as the minimum age for signing up to their platforms, doesn’t mean they need to.

So, should we confiscate our teens smartphones and ban them from social media forever? Do we become those Christian parents who are known for the long list of things they’re against? I don’t think that’s practical and is more likely to lead to rebellious and deceitful behaviour. I believe there is a way to train our children in the responsible use of social media.

Our approach to introducing our kids to social media is not unlike teaching them drive —we wouldn’t just hand them our car keys on their 16th birthday and wish them all the best. When I learned to drive, not only did my dad give me the practical skills to operate the car, but he also taught me about the responsibility that came with driving; about how a car—if used incorrectly— could be a weapon with devastating effect.

Do they engage in respectful online conversations or are they using the medium to intimidate, bully or gossip? Are they able to assume the best and extend the most generous interpretation where another person’s comments are ambiguous or unclear?

Similarly, social media can be an amazing tool for connecting people and giving voice to effect positive social change. Used incorrectly, the outcome can be equally devastating.

From L plates to P plates

Kids start with their L plates, under the close instruction of an experienced driver. So, when it comes to technology, we start by giving access to text messaging and group texting apps such as WhatsApp on their mobile phone and/or laptop. From the outset, we set the expectation that we will be checking their messages from time to time. When we see inappropriate conversations, we sit down and have a discussion about better communication.

During this learning phase, we’re looking for evidence of good communication skills both online and offline. For example, have they demonstrated:

1.   Good face-to-face communication skills

Are they able to engage with their peers and adults face-to-face? Do their face-to-face interactions mirror their online conversations, or are they timid in person and brash and obnoxious online?

2.   Respectful interactions

Do they engage in respectful online conversations or are they using the medium to intimidate, bully or gossip? Are they able to assume the best and extend the most generous interpretation where another person’s comments are ambiguous or unclear?

3.    Coping with criticism and negative feedback

It’s unfortunate, but social media has become a platform where people can have a degree of anonymity and there are haters who love to criticise and shame. We can’t shield our kids from this forever, in fact it happens in the playground at school. But social media amplifies this in a very public way, and in terms of protecting our teen’s mental health, I want to ensure that they have a level of self-confidence to shake that negativity off.

4.   Secure in themselves

One twenty-year-old recently shared that throughout her teens her first action every day was to reach for her phone and see how many ‘likes’ she had received on the previous day’s Instagram post; if she had over 100 likes she felt a sense of acceptance and approval from her followers. The Apostle Paul challenges us in Galatians 1:10 to think carefully about who we’re looking to for approval – are we trying to win the approval of human beings or God? There is so much about social media that encourages us to only share the beautifully choreographed, filtered highlight reels of our lives. Before our children access social media, I want them to absolutely know that God their creator loves them as they are and there is nothing they can do to make Him (or us their parents) love them more. With that sense of assurance, they’re less likely to chase the online approval of others

But in the same way that P-platers have a number of restrictions before they obtain their full drivers’ licence ), the introduction to social media will be a hands-on coaching exercise.

5.   Tolerance

If you overheard a comment you didn’t agree with on the bus, very few people would interject with a foul-mouthed, offensive spray. However, sitting behind their screens on social media, the haters do it all the time. As an adult I sometimes find that difficult to handle; as a teenager exploring where and how they fit in, such negativity can potentially lead to depression and a raft of mental health issues.

In her recent book Braving the Wilderness, Brené Brown says that increasingly people want to boil down big philosophical discussions and force us to take sides – ‘you’re either with us or against us’.

She says, “one of the most courageous things to say in an uncomfortable conversation is, ‘tell me more.… Help me understand why this is so important to you, or, help me understand why you don’t agree with a particular idea”.

So, one of the things I want our kids to learn before using social media is that when they meet someone with an opposing point of view, they don’t immediately brand them as ‘the enemy’ and impulsively start an argument. I want them to learn to ask questions to understand the other person’s perspective; and even if they can’t agree, they’ll have a better understanding of the person’s position and can still respect their fellow human being.

6.   Impulse control

Understanding the addictive nature of smartphones and social media, are they able to resist the temptation to be accessible at all times and respond immediately to notifications. As parents we need to make sure we’re role modelling this. So, when our phones (which are in the bowl on the kitchen bench) ping with a notification during mealtime, we don’t interrupt our family time to check it.

P plate before full license

Once they’ve demonstrated a degree of competence in these six areas, our teens are ready for their P plates and become active on social media. But in the same way that P-platers have a number of restrictions before they obtain their full drivers’ licence (such as a reduced speed limit, number of passengers in the car, blood alcohol limit), the introduction to social media will be a hands-on coaching exercise, gradually stepping back once they have demonstrated that they are responsible and respectful online citizens.

Robert Garrett is a blogger and author of ‘More Like The Father’.