How young is too young for digital technology and social media?


Art Bamford Image Art Bamford | Oct 8, 2016

Photo by Annie Spratt

This is part of an FYI series on navigating digital technology and social media with young people. Read Part 1 here: VIA MEDIA A New Look @ Navigating Digital Technology with Young People.

The question guiding these conversations is: How can we both thoughtfully address the potentially negative aspects and capitalize on the positive?

Many of you know firsthand how difficult today’s question is: At what age should a person start using a certain device, app, or social media platform?

When we talk with parents about this, many express feeling like they’re holding the line in a battle for as long as possible. There is constant pressure, from multiple sides, for kids to start using more and more digital technology at earlier ages.

That cultural pressure makes this question particularly tough. We can tell you what doctors recommend, what the national averages are, or various other pros and cons; but when your kids’ school tells you they need an email account, or their coach tells you they will be coordinating practice times by text message, or your teen comes home and tells you the irrefutable sad refrain “all my friends have one!”—the data seems to go out the window.

What the Doctors Say

In case you’re wondering, here is what medical professionals say: The American Association of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends having “screen free zones” in the house, especially a young person’s bedroom, as well as “screen free times” like during meals. They also recommend just one to two hours of entertainment screen time per day, and zero screen time at all for children under two years old.

Now don’t be too thrown off if those recommendations are not quite how it is in your house. Keep in mind that these are the same people who recommend brushing your teeth three times a day, sleeping eight hours a night, daily exercise, and a well-balanced diet—they set the bar at “best-case scenario.” But that best-case scenario is based on what’s good for our bodies, minds, and emotions. Aiming high never hurts.

That being said, there are several big takeaways that I want to share after having reviewed a number of relevant studies. First, a few key findings to consider, followed by some recommended tips and strategies for families and leaders.

Key Findings about Kids and Digital Technology

1. Online behavior tends to be very consistent with offline behavior.

Parents should discuss concerns about their teen offline: spending a lot of time with the opposite sex, easily distracted from homework, getting picked on by peers, and so on. It is easy to imagine any and every negative scenario that might happen, but you’re better off identifying and focusing on the more likely ones—which are the ones most similar to the concerns you already have about offline behavior.

2. Parents set the standards for the house.

You get what you give. Many parents and leaders might be best served by focusing on honoring their own screen-free zones and times, and limiting their number of hours per day on screens outside of work. I know that can be a hard pill to swallow, but seeing you struggle with it, and seeing how you work out accountability structures for yourself will have a big impact on your kids. In some cases they may even be your best allies—you hold them accountable for a lot of things; they’ll appreciate a chance to return the favor!

3. The primary reason young people actually use digital technology is to interact and communicate with friends, family, and peers.

The second reason is to explore their hobbies and interests online—with gaming falling into this category since the interest itself (the games) are online. Any ways you can enhance their abilities to do these two things without technology may reduce their sense of needing or wanting the technology itself.

Tips and Strategies for Navigating the “When to Start” Question

  1. The magic number is 13. The minimum age required for Facebook, iTunes, G-Mail, Pinterest, SnapChat, and Instagram are all 13. Twitter no longer says so as required in their terms, but encourages parents to notify them of accounts for anyone under 13 (at: to be taken down. If you have a child under the age of 13 who is using these social media platforms, you can appeal to terms of use and the current law and draw a line. (COPPA, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, set the minimum age at 13.) Service and user-agreements for various other devices, software, apps, and so on will often provide a mandatory minimum user age, typically to avoid legal liabilities. This should help parents make certain limits up to at least age 13.
  2. Talk with other parents, particularly at your church, and try to set community standards. A lot of parents read blogs like this one because they feel left on their own with these types of decisions. Coordinating with other parents provides some peace of mind, and can be helpful when teachers, coaches, scout leaders, and so on try to push towards using email/text/etc. by providing strength in numbers. “We signed a pledge with 10 other families at church that we aren’t going to let our kids have a smartphone until…” If you are a pastor or youth leader, think about facilitating something like this for parents. Your job will be easier too if most of the young people in your group are on the same page with this stuff! 1
  3. Remember when you are having these conversations that these devices are, to them, like the Air Jordans, Leather Jackets, Walkmans, belly-button rings—whatever it was that would set you apart as cool or uncool at their age. It is easy to get misdirected by questions of convenience, necessity, requirement for school, and so on. What is at stake for a lot of young people when they ask, then beg, for these things is a feeling of fitting in and self-worth. Take that into consideration, show them empathy, and don’t discredit how important something similar seemed to you at some point in your adolescent journey.
  4. Create a kind of “terms and conditions” plan with your teenager prior to giving them access to a device. Be generous in creating it and strict in enforcing it, rather than the other way around. Include timeframes for when the contract will be renegotiated/renewed based on certain expectations, like grades or help around the house. Contracts are helpful in setting boundaries, but also helpful with understanding the types of contractual relationships they will enter into as adults. In keeping with our first tip above, it might be helpful for parents to also have some responsibilities in this contract.

    Common Sense Media offers free sample agreements for grades K-5, 6-8, and 9-12. The Center for Parent/Youth Understanding (CPYU) also has a sample family covenant.

    We might also suggest adding a relevant Bible verse to your family’s covenant (e.g. Ephesians 4:29, “Let no evil words come from you, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who receive them.”) to remind your kids that being a Christian applies to communicating digitally as much as it does to communicating face-to-face. Online behavior tends to be very consistent with offline behavior—that can be a good thing, too!

Have you tried an agreement like the ones we have described? We would love for you to post your ideas in the comments section below to help other parents and leaders.

Similarly, if your church has tried to set community standards like what we’ve described, tell us how that went. What were the biggest challenges? What commitments emerged?

VIA MEDIA Part 1: A New Look @ Navigating Digital Technology with Young People
VIA MEDIA Part 2: How Young is Too Young for Digital Technology and Social Media?

VIA MEDIA Part 3: Sticks and Phones: Preventing Digital Bullying
VIA MEDIA Part 4: My [Own] Space: Supervision vs. Surveillance

1. Kevin Kelly, a Christian and the founding editor-in-chief of Wired magazine has a great chapter titled “Lessons of Amish Hackers” in his book What Technology Wants on the community discernment practices Mennonites use with regards to adopting new technology. Obviously you may not skew as lo-tech as the Pennsylvania Amish, but their process is great and could easily be adapted to fit your context.

Art Bamford Image
Art Bamford

Art Bamford is a Ph.D. student in Media Studies at the University of Colorado-Boulder. He completed an M.Div. at Fuller in 2015, and holds an M.A. in media and communication from the University of Denver where he worked as a research associate for the Estlow Center's Teens & New Media @ Home project.

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