How to prepare kids for their first social media account

Ms Cheryl Chan with her seven-year-old son Reagan (left) and daughter Raequelle, eight. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

Ms Cheryl Chan with her seven-year-old son Reagan (left) and daughter Raequelle, eight. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY


OCT 17, 2021
Venessa Lee


Earlier this year, Ms Cheryl Chan offered her eight-year-old daughter her own YouTube channel.

The administrative executive did so even though her daughter, Raequelle Zhang, is below the minimum age of 13 stipulated for social media accounts on platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and TikTok.

Typically, age requirements are not strictly enforced and children under 13 can use such accounts as long as their parents approve them.

Ms Chan says: “At first, Raequelle would seek permission to be allowed to watch this or that YouTube channel. Instead of always saying no, why don’t we do something different as long as it’s within the boundaries I set?”

After all, she reasons, children are exposed at a young age to technology, even in school where gadgets are used for teaching.

“I thought, ‘Why not let her start her own channel for fun?’ I decided it was time to let my girl take on responsibility and accountability,” says Ms Chan, who is married to a freelance photographer. The couple, both in their mid-30s, also have a son, seven-year-old Reagan.

Raequelle likes to direct her brother in short video clips at the playground and other snippets of daily life posted on her YouTube channel.

The ground rules that Ms Chan has set for her daughter include the use of parental control apps, allowing Raequelle to make and post videos only after she has completed her homework and other chores, teaching her about fake news and observing safety protocols such as not posting videos of their home.


Possible harmful effects

The possible harmful effects of social media came under the spotlight in September, when The Wall Street Journal reported leaked research showing the harmful effects of photo-sharing app Instagram on childhood mental health.

The research by Instagram, a subsidiary of Facebook, showed that Instagram could affect girls’ mental health on issues such as body image and self-esteem, with teenage girls being most affected.

Some parenting experts say it is up to the parents to assess when their kids are mature enough for their first social media account.

But the experts caution that it is essential for parents to prepare their child for his or her first social media account. They urge parents to set ground rules and expectations, and prioritise offline relationships.

“Parents need to help their children understand that having a social media account comes with responsibility,” says Mr Shem Yao, head of Touch Parenting, Touch Community Services.


Check that your child is ready

Mr Yao encourages parents to consider five factors before deciding if their child is ready for a social media account.

These five SMART factors are:

  • Self-discipline: Whether the child has the self-discipline to regulate the time spent on social media
  • Mindful: Whether the child is mindful of others, such as considering whether having a social media account would cause him or her to forgo face-to-face social interactions
  • Analytical: Whether the child is analytical enough to understand if something he or she sees online is fake or inappropriate
  • Resilience: Whether the child has resilience to bounce back from negative online experiences such as cyber bullying or receiving hateful comments
  • Trustworthy: Whether the child is trustworthy so his or her parents have faith that he or she will keep to the parameters of social media use, which parent and child should agree on beforehand


Teach respect for boundaries

Respecting the minimum age requirement on social media platforms “teaches children to respect boundaries”, argues Ms Carol Loi, founder and principal consultant at Village Consultancy, which provides digital literacy education for youth, families and educators.

Learning about boundaries in a wider sense prepares children to navigate social media, she adds.

“Discuss family boundaries and ensure that the children are able to understand the purpose of boundaries in their lives,” she says.

This could involve fixed bedtimes and agreeing to use language that “honours others”, she says.

Parents can then segue into conversations about “media-specific boundaries” like a shared understanding of what constitutes healthy media content, having device-free meals so that family members can have “face time”, and not leaving devices overnight in the child’s bedroom.

“If children have trouble understanding the purpose of boundaries in their lives, it would be useful to delay introducing social media which is enticing to the child and thus harder to enforce boundaries,” Ms Loi says.


Have a joint agreement beforehand

Mr Yao suggests that parents come to an agreement with the child about the child’s social media use.

“This helps to set limits on how long your children can go online, what they do online and when they should use social media. It is always good to check in with them before they post or upload anything so that you can monitor their activities. Parents should also remember to adhere to those rules themselves,” says Mr Yao.

He advises using monitoring apps for supervision.

“Having a clear idea of your children’s device usage allows you to intervene in a timely manner when they are spending too much time on social media,” he says.

“Parents can also consider monitoring the types of accounts that their children follow, to ensure that their feed is populated with positive, educational and encouraging content. Parents can do so by following those accounts as well. This generates more common topics of conversation between the parent and child,” he adds.

Parents should ensure that younger children do not post content with violence and abusive language, he says.

Parental control apps include Kaspersky Safe Kids, Qustodio Parental Control and Symantec Norton Family Premier. They have features that filter content, block undesirable apps, track the user’s location, monitor social media, calls and texts, and enforce time limits.


Start with one account

Mr Yao suggests letting children have one social media account first, rather than allowing them to sign up for multiple accounts all at once.

“Scaffold your child’s experience by starting small and setting tight boundaries for social media usage. These boundaries can be expanded slowly when your child shows he or she is trustworthy and responsible,” he says.

Administrative manager Lydia Lau and her husband Elijah Tay recently let their 10-year-old daughter have an Instagram account that is linked to Ms Lau’s.

Besides their daughter, Zoe Charis Tay, the couple, both 44, have a younger daughter who is seven.


Ms Lydia Lau with her daughters, Zoe Charis Tay and Sophie Jaynie Tay. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN


Ms Lau says: “When posting comments, we ask Zoe to think about whether she would like to receive such comments. She also has to bear in mind who the person is and not to hurt the relationship. These are real people on social media.”

She also advised Zoe about privacy settings and considerations like asking the permission of other children and their parents before posting any photos with her friends.

Ms Lau will be using the same approach in introducing other social media platforms to Zoe when the time is right.

Ms Loi says that encouraging children to co-create and co-consume social media content using their parents’ social media accounts can be beneficial. It allows the parents to be role models in content consumption and production, such as how to be intentional when posting on social media.


Focus on values

One way to counter social media risks like cyber bullying, peer pressure and unhealthy social comparisons is to ground the child with a firm sense of identity, says Ms Loi.

“Children who are aware of their uniqueness, gifts and talents will be more confident and be better able to deal with online negativity,” she says.

Similarly, help children develop the skills to differentiate between right and wrong media choices.

She says: “Children will be flooded with inappropriate media content that is sexual or violent, so teaching children early about healthy sexuality and respectful relationships is crucial. The best filter and monitoring tools that our children can have are the ones within themselves.”


Build a transparent family culture

Ms Loi encourages parents and children to openly share with one another what they are watching and playing, who they are following online, how photo apps can manipulate body size and skin tone, and how to deal with potential online predators or media content that makes them feel uncomfortable.

This contributes to “a climate of safety” at home, where children feel safe discussing with their parents their concerns, as well as complex or uncomfortable topics.

A culture of transparency and psychological safety can be a bulwark against the harmful effects of social media, especially when children and teenagers can create social media accounts that their parents are unaware of.

Mr Shaun Liu, a trainer for parenting programmes at Morning Star Community Services, has encountered teens creating secret “dump” Instagram accounts, where they limit their followers and post content that they may feel their parents do not approve of, whether it is their innermost thoughts, photos of them relaxing and having fun, or even images of self-harm.

Their parents may follow the teens’ main accounts, which have photos or videos that are viewed as more acceptable.

Mr Liu advises parents to go back to the basics of having open conversations with their children.

If young people sense that their parents are judgmental or unreceptive towards their views and problems, they will confide in other people instead, he says.


Bond with the kids

Mr Liu says sharing social media experiences with one’s children can be a bonding experience as it could lead to new topics of conversation.

Raequelle, for instance, has learnt to be more confident, says her mother, Ms Chan.

The girl has picked up digital skills on her own. She learnt to block comments on her YouTube videos, to avoid any negativity, and she picks the music for the soundtracks of her short videos.

She and her brother have also tried new experiences such as tasting squid ink pasta for the first time, which she made into a video.

Ms Chan says: “I believe she has gained some knowledge in how to be creative and what content she wants to show her viewers and followers. Hopefully, this can help her in her future creative writing skills.

“Having her own social media account has also helped to strengthen our bonding and communication as a family.”


This article was originally published in The Straits Times on 17 October 2021

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