As children head into the years sandwiched between childhood and adolescence – we call them the ‘tweens’ – there is often mounting pressure (and desire) to be online with friends. Whether chatting, gaming, making and sharing videos – there’s a very big fear of missing out (FOMO) for children not allowed to access the online space.
In most other ways in child education, we get out in front of high-risk situations with good preventative education – road safety, sun smart and drug aware programs of learning. Yet, in one of the highest risk environments for children, there’s a world of debate about whether we do, or whether we don’t allow tweens access and how we teach them effectively in that space as they find their digital-life-legs.
Most social media and gaming platforms set the age of legal access as 13. In most developed countries though, in excess of 80% of 12-year olds already have 2 or more social media accounts.
Our 21st Century children are exposed to screens from early in life – for leisure and pleasure. Termed ‘digital natives,’ the proficiency with which many children access and use devices is almost like they were born with it in hand. In the tween years, with some children allowed access before the legal age to a range of apps and platforms, there’s a lot of pressure on parents and children holding the line – and a LOT of tween monkey-business when it comes to secretly setting up social media accounts so as not to miss out or be the odd-one-out.
With so many social and emotional problems either starting or being extended through a tween’s digital life, it’s not uncommon to hear people say that preventing access would be the answer. If only it was that simple. Every parent of a tween will have been involved in some level of discussion about which friends are allowed various social media and apps, who have their very own devices and who is allowed to use that device wherever and whenever they want.
The tween years are very important ones developmentally. While friends are becoming more important and influential, teachers and parents are still significant shapers of behaviour. These years provide a window of opportunity to educate tweens, readying them for safe and responsible digital-life while they’re still malleable and open to influence from the adults in their lives. Using the same rationale we apply to all other protective education, getting in early and providing children with an opportunity to practise their skills before using them in the real world is essential – vital even.
Any parent having to watch a little face crumble in absolute disappointment, to be blamed for single-handedly ruining their child’s life and being told that they just don’t understand will know that rock-in-the-gut feeling that follows.
When it comes to standing firm on no access to online chats and apps that other children have access to, and knowing the emotional impact of feeling (and being) left out, almost every parent will spend some time questioning whether they made the right decision or not.
Unfortunately, there is no definitively right or wrong move here – just the one that’s right for your family. Applying parental controls, keeping open access to your child’s accounts, and being part of the apps and accounts can provide a child with enough safe exposure to dip their toes in the water. Not every child will willingly work within limits though, and not every parent is willing to take the many risks associated with having their child online.
The most important consideration for every parent though, is ensuring that whether access is permitted or denied, that there is a lot of cyber-education before, and when, access is granted. Parents using their own social media accounts to educate themselves and their children is highly recommended. Just like building up competence for crossing roads over time, first holding hands, then walking beside, then watching from a distance – building up cyber-competence doesn’t simply turn on at the legal age of 13 years.
Tweens can become very anxious about not having apps and accounts other friends do. Friends are becoming increasingly important and the thought of not being in on a chat or not knowing the rules of lunch-time game play because they originated in an online game that everyone else is playing can feel very isolating – and embarrassing too.
Managing this anxiety takes a plan. If a lunch-time game is based around an online game that a child is not allowed to play, figuring out the basic game play and running through that offline helps with inclusion. It’s also important to help children to manage conversations with friends that might lead to them pretending that actually they do have access when they don’t. This is just one of many parts of childhood that needs tuition in resilience. Rehearse lines that honestly address the situation or that deflect attention to something else. Rehearsal needs to be out loud with a trusted adult to guide the responses – it’s always better to have a practise before doing it for real.
Providing preventative education is every parent and educator’s core business. Every child who has been prepared before doing something for the first time does better. Simple. That’s just how humans work.
There is no one-size-fits-all recommendation for whether to allow or withhold social media access until the legal age. Just like some young people are allowed to watch MA rated movies from a young age, others are not permitted by their parent and somehow, families work it out their way. While it would be so much simpler all round if no child was actually allowed social media before a certain age, the world just does not go round like that. So, what matters is choosing what’s right for you and your child and working with that.
Either way, as the saying goes, a stitch in time saves nine. Education before the fact and long before the act is essential.
DiGii Social is a carefully designed digital-life training platform just for tweens. It provides the opportunity to practise skills towards mastery before spending too much time on other social media platforms. DiGii Social is easy to use and available as a school subscription with a parent education channel included.
Office of the eSafety Commissioner https://www.esafety.gov.au/