16 Feb 2023

Is 13 too young to be on TikTok and Instagram?

From Nights, 9:45 pm on 16 February 2023

Young people risk damaging their self-worth if they're on social media at 13, warned US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy last month.

But while some children may not be ready for TikTok or Instagram at this age, it's overly simplistic to say we're damaging the teenagers who are allowed to use these platforms, says University of Sydney media lecturer Dr Catherine Page Jeffery.

A teenage boy in glasses looks at phone

Photo: Cottonbro / Pexels

"We need to be mindful of the benefits of social media, as well, and not let all the doom stories overshadow that and make us too anxious as parents. And we really need to think through our own children's abilities and level of maturity and whether or not we think they're ready and if they'll be able to use it to their own advantage," she tells Nights.

Dr Catherine Page Jeffery with two children, looking at a laptop

Dr Catherine Page Jeffery with her two children Photo: Supplied

While Dr Page Jeffery understands parents' concerns about online safety, she says there is no 'one size fits all' approach to ascertaining when a child is ready for social media, when they should get a phone or how much screen time they are allowed.

As a teenager, she spent hours on the phone with friends after school – and now that kind of interaction is largely happening on the internet.

"[Social media] is a fantastic way for young people to connect with their friends… [It provides] another form of media through which young people can maintain relationships outside of school."

On social media platforms, young people can explore ways to express their identity, explore their creativity and become civically engaged, Dr Page Jeffery says.

While the mass media would have us believe grooming, pornography and bullying are the biggest hazards with teenagers using social media, Dr Page Jeffery says most are now are "pretty switched on" to the dangers of these due to long-running cybersafety education programmes.

"Young people are managing issues around unwanted contact online fairly well."

We've heard a lot about the dangers of online bullying in recent years, she says, but, while hurtful, bullying is not a new problem.

Social media has provided a new avenue for this kind of unkind behaviour, which is more often about "drama and exclusion" than bullying as such.

It is social exclusion and exposure to sexist, misogynist or racist views that many parents are most worried about in relation to their kids' online lives, she says.

While parents should be aware of what their child is looking at and experiencing on the internet – they should go about this without "monitoring" or "snooping", Dr Page Jeffery says.

"Older children are developing their autonomy and independence and social media is a really powerful way for them to do that ... If you say to a 14 or 16-year-old 'no you can have it' a lot of them are going to get it anyway and not tell you about it – and that's when it becomes a problem.'


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