Vast numbers of children today have access to smartphones and social media networks.  Child social media influencers, with their own accounts on Instagram and YouTube, some with over two million followers, have increased rapidly over the past couple of years. Children as young as six can be found giving makeup tutorials, testing out toys, demonstrating computer games, surfing the waves or modelling clothes. 

Most social media sites such as Facebook and Instagram officially verify that users must be a minimum of 13 years old in order to set up an account, according to a US law passed in 1998 through the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). In theory COPPA requires the Federal Trade Commission to regulate and enforce children’s online privacy, in effect prohibiting the collection of personal information of anyone under the age of 13 in the United States or anywhere outside the country if the company is US based.

Some social media giants such as WhatsApp do require account holders to be a minimum of 16 years old whilst YouTube requires users to be a minimum of 18, although they also allow 13 year-olds to sign up with parental consent. However, despite the existing regulations, do media sites enforce them and are parents fully cognisant of the law? For the most part, the answer in both cases appears to be no! Children as young as two and three years old can be found on Instagram with accounts in their own name.

Research indicates that most apps rarely seek verifiable parental consent for younger users, largely because they deem it to be unrealistically enforceable.  In the UK, a 2016 study by the Children’s British Broadcasting Corporation (CBBC) discovered that 75% of children aged between 10 and 12 had a social media account. Children under the age of 13 were using apps across the board including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat, with 49% of under 13s using Facebook.  This indicates there are significant loopholes. Users – or someone setting up an account on their behalf – can simply lie when inputting their age. 

Social media is part and parcel of how we communicate today, with many benefits. It is interactive, an ideal forum for creating and sharing information, ideas and opinions, and a useful tool for recording events. But there is a dark side to social media too: cyberbullying, trolling, misinformation, conspiracy theories, exposure to threatening or offensive language, exposure to inappropriate images, playing on someone’s gullible nature or vulnerability.

Let’s consider the positives first!

Social media apps are useful for:

Social networking. Keeping in contact with people we know and getting to know new people. E.g. Facebook

Microblogging. Passing social comment, making a statement. E.g. Twitter

Photo sharing. E.g. Instagram, Snapchat 

Video sharing. E.g. YouTube

Knowledge expansion. Social media can help children expand their knowledge and understanding of the world around them. They can watch any number of short videos on YouTube for example to learn about the natural world, science, space or see what it is like to live in Africa or Thailand or on a house boat!  

Outlet for creativity. Age appropriate video and editing apps encourage children to take photos and play around with how to present them in interesting ways so that others may enjoy them.  Older children can get involved in designing their own pages, creating their own videos and recording their own voice overs!

Advertising. Useful for small businesses or NGOs, instead of having a website.  

Chat groups. E.g. gaming chat groups over specific games such as Minecraft

Fiona McDonald, Head of Learning Support and Overseas Programme Quality, Julia Gabriel Education, offers her insights about the positives of social media for children:

With the right set up, ongoing conversations, monitoring and boundaries, social media can have a positive impact on our children’s lives.

For children social media can have a good impact in terms of them keeping in contact with peers especially during times like our recent circuit breaker.  It has been great in connecting generations and people who live in different parts of the world. For example, in my family my mother likes seeing photos and snippets of her nieces and grandchildren who are on the other side of the world!  

Certain social media apps allow children to develop their interests and to find peers who are also interested in similar activities: horse riding clubs, cooking clubs, book clubs, to name just a few.  Here, children can share their ideas and experiences across the globe. 

For some children with additional needs, such as verbal communication difficulties or physical limitations, a social media app can build up a sense of belonging to a group.  Some of the teenagers I have worked with find it easier to communicate online about things they are finding challenging, or their successes, than they do face to face.  It can be a comfortable space that doesn’t overwhelm the participants.

The flip side of course is that as soon as we join any social media platform, we open ourselves up to potential ridicule, negative judgement or worse, intimidation and threats. The statistics for cyberbullying and its affects on young children and youth are very disturbing. (See Table 1.) The fact that users can comment about others opinions, choices, experiences and appearance anonymously, emboldens many to make baseless judgements and post cruel comments which can cause a great deal of harm. What’s more, those being bullied online remain vulnerable at all times, wherever they are. Cyberbullies can follow their victims home, invading their private time and space in insidious ways. 

The national public health agency of the United States – the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – found in 2018 that youth who are bullied are at greater risk of depression, anxiety, sleep difficulties, lower academic achievement and dropping out of school.

Table I


  • Approx. 34% of students report experiencing cyberbullying during their lifetime (Hinduja & Patchin, 2015)
  • Over 60% of students who experience cyberbullying reported that it immensely impacted their ability to learn and feel safe while at school (Hinduja, 2018)
  • 59% of U.S. teens have been bullied or harassed online. Over 90% believe it’s a major problem for people their age (Pew Research Center, 2018)

Self-harm as a result of cyberbullying

  • Targets of cyberbullying are at a greater risk than others of both self-harm and suicidal behaviours (John et al., 2018)
  • Approximately 18% of youth report self-harming at least once, impacting 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 10 boys (Monto, McRee, & Deryck, 2018)
  • About 6% of students have digitally self-harmed or anonymously posted online or shared hurtful content about themselves  (Patchin & Hinduja, 2017)

Suicide as a result of cyberbullying

  • Students who experienced bullying or cyberbullying are nearly 2 times more likely to attempt suicide (Hinduja & Patchin, 2018)
  • Current research indicates that suicide contemplation and attempts among adolescents have nearly doubled since 2008 (Plemmons et al., 2018), making suicide the second leading cause of death for individuals 10-34 years of age (CDC, 2017)

*Studies conducted by various organisations, foundations and academics across the USA between 2014 – 2019. Figures reproduced from Megan Meir Foundation, 2020.  

With access to global communication comes great responsibility – and where children are concerned, that falls to the adults who surround them!

Fiona McDonald is pragmatic about the fact that young children today can easily navigate their way around social media apps but cautions about allowing them excessive access. 

Children in preschool and lower primary should have limited access to social media.  They need to develop the understanding of what is fact and what is fiction; they need to develop an understanding of what is appropriate and they need to be spending their time in face to face interaction and play.  It’s fine for them to see grandma’s photos from her holiday or to take some photos to post on Mummy’s account if these things are considered acceptable by the family, and because the family is informed and knowledgeable about the platforms they themselves are using.

Older children also need face to face interaction and play but with maturity they can learn to manage access to other forms of communication…When used responsibly and with awareness, social media can help expand a young person’s social interaction in positive ways. What does need to be discussed is the ‘level of friendship’ that they have with an online friend.  Chatting with someone online forges a different type of relationship than with someone in class at school they see every day. And as with all friendships, it may change over time.

Fiona acknowledges that it is impractical for parents to constantly be looking over their child’s shoulder but that it is essential to monitor social media / online usage. That’s why she urges parents to “ensure that the communication door is open and that children know there are risks and what the boundaries and values are in terms of using social media.

And she vehemently cautions against children being able to access chat rooms. Fiona explains why: “I have had one experience where a student showed me the chat room they were in and within three minutes of being online a complete stranger was asking me to meet them! The student was unaware that this was a potentially dangerous situation they had got themselves into.”  

Tips for Online Safety

Online safety is a major concern of parents today but navigating the dos, don’ts, whats and hows can feel like a minefield! Here are some useful guidelines:

Educate yourself about the privacy and safety regulations. COPPA dictates that anyone signing up for a social media account that requires input of personal data must be a minimum of 13 years old though this can vary between apps. 

Reflect on the apps you use yourself and if your child has access to them. What are the privacy settings on your devices? Consider how familiar you are with the privacy features of the platforms you use. 

Consider how much time you allow your child to spend chatting, messaging and browsing etc., especially if they have their own accounts.

Expand your interests, for the sake of your child! How clued up are you about the latest social media crazes that your child might be influenced by or exposed to? It is a challenge but try to keep abreast of what’s going on out there!

Set boundaries from the very beginning. Monitoring is essential. But it is also essential you talk to your child about the positives and the negatives of social media, and set reasonable guidelines with regards to the amount of time they can spend online. The aim is to ensure that your child’s experience online is a positive one but they also need to be aware of the dangers and understand that as a parent, you will continue to be involved in what they are doing and viewing for the best of reasons.

Talk with your child. Children and teens can feel ashamed and embarrassed if being bullied, preferring not to talk about their hurtful online experiences. They may question their own value but also fear that if they tell a parent, they may lose their smartphone altogether! Maintaining open and trusting channels of communication is absolutely vital.

Encouraging mindfulness in our students throughout Julia Gabriel Education is part and parcel of our approach to learning and holistic development. As adults, we must ensure that we also include educating children to be kind online as part of this practice. Role modelling positive practices is always the best start! 

It takes courage to stand out from the crowd rather than follow it but with patience, foresight and research, we can ensure we instil in our children the values we believe to be important. Values that will keep them happy, well-balanced, stimulated and safe! 

Most popular social media apps 

Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, Instagram, We chat, YouTube, WhatsApp, Messenger, Tumblr, Reddit, Snapchat, Linkedin, Line, Pinterest

Lesser known apps: QQ, Qzone, Viber, Telegram, Medium, Baidu Tieba

Useful parenting sites 

Today there are many sites online that serve as resources for parents and children about getting connected safely! You may wish to browse a few. 

Here are two you may find particularly useful:

The Parent Hub is part of Dolly’s Dream, a site set up following the tragic death of a young Australian teen as a result of cyberbullying. The Parent Hub answers FAQs depending on different parenting styles with regard to tech, sharing useful research, videos and facts and figures.

A UK based not-for-profit site that aims to empower parents and teachers with useful guidelines, resources and age appropriate tips for keeping children safe in the digital world.

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