According to a new study, those who started using social media before the age of 11 were substantially more likely to engage in problematic digital behaviors than those who started later.
The study published in Computers in Human Behavior also found that parental restrictions on phone use and checking social media improved some of the negative effects.
“Social media sites all require a minimum age of 13 to register, but the reality is that many users are younger than that: one-third of our sample had already started using social media at age 11 or 12 and another one-third had begun at age 10 or younger,” said the study’s lead author Ms. Linda Charmaraman, PhD, Director of the Youth, Media and Wellbeing Research Lab at the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW).
She further noted that the study helps to understand the risks and benefits for kids as well as teens so that parents and policymakers can make decisions that prioritize their wellbeing.
Ms. Charmaraman and her co-authors conducted a survey of 773 middle school students in the Northeast United States to learn about their social media use, digital behaviors, and parental restrictions on digital use.
The researchers found that “joining social media platforms like Instagram or Snapchat before age 11 was significantly associated with having online friends or joining social media sites parents would disapprove of, more problematic digital technology behaviors, more unsympathetic online behaviors, and greater likelihood of online harassment and sexual harassment victimization.” Some of these impacts were reduced when parents restricted phone use and limited how often their kids checked social media.
Further, the researchers found that regardless of when they joined social media, early adolescents more frequently engaged in positive digital behaviors than negative ones.
And, when compared to those who joined later, those who joined social media as children (age 10 or younger) showed a greater tendency to engage in supportive or civically engaged online community behaviors, such as socially supportive social media posts, fostering awareness of social issues, or organizing events through social media. This may be due to being socialized at a younger age to understand both the positive and negative potential of different platforms.
Ms. Charmaraman stated that this study shows that the industry-based age minimum of 13 for social media users could potentially be a good standard if it can be enforced.
“The findings also suggest that a potential strategy to support families with children, tweens, and teens is to a) keep track of social media sites and online friend networks; b) set even one rule about screen use (i.e., limiting duration on school nights); and c) monitor children’s frequency of checking, particularly if they’re using social media at age 10 and younger,” she further added.
Furthermore, Ms. Charmaraman and her research team are also conducting studies to see if the age at which users begin using social media has any long-term effects on their health and well-being.