What is the right age for a child to start using social media? It depends on who you ask.
Most social media companies allow those 13 years and older to use their platforms. But U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said recently on CNN that 13 is “too early.”
In early adolescence, kids are still “developing their identity, their sense of self,” Murthy said on CNN’s “Newsroom” on Jan. 29. “The skewed, and often distorted, environment of social media often does a disservice to many of those children.”
Social media companies have been under more scrutiny for the data they collect and the effects their products have on children’s mental health. A recent study published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics found that children who are frequent, early social media users become overly sensitive to anticipating social risks and rewards from peers.
And some education leaders are taking legal action to confront the problem. Seattle Public Schools in January sued the companies that own TikTok, Instagram, YouTube, and Snapchat, claiming that their social media platforms are a major force driving the deterioration in students’ social, emotional, and mental health.
Educators and parents are particularly concerned about how the time adolescents spend on social media has increased in the last few years. Social media use among kids between the ages of 8 and 18 increased by 17 percent between 2019 and 2021, according to a 2022 Common Sense Media report.
“Would it be nice, would it be good if we could keep young people off social media?” said Sherri Hope Culver, a Temple University professor and director of the university’s Center for Media and Information Literacy. “That probably would be great, but that seems like an unhelpful discussion to be having. They are on social media. They are not going to not be on social media.”
Even if social media companies change the age restriction, they don’t have a track record of enforcing those restrictions, Culver said.
Because kids will use social media no matter what, the “more effective and worthwhile” conversation should be about how adults can help children have a healthy relationship with social media, and “that is where media literacy comes in,” she added.
Media literacy is defined as “the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, create, and act using all forms of communication,” according to the National Association for Media Literacy Education, a professional association for educators, academics, activists, and students.
Culver and other advocates say media literacy should be taught to every student starting in kindergarten, because almost all of the information that kids get comes from a media source.
There’s a growing interest in requiring media literacy education in the United States, “but not anywhere near the action that we need to see,” Culver said.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signed a bill last month that requires public schools to teach media literacy skills to all students. In Illinois, school districts are required to teach lessons in media literacy for all high students. Other states require the state boards of education or departments of education to develop media literacy standards but don’t require schools to teach those skills, according to nonprofit advocacy group Media Literacy Now.
Still, the burden shouldn’t just be on schools, parents, and students, Murthy said. He criticized social media apps for being designed “to make sure people are maximizing the amount of time they spend on these platforms.”
“If we tell a child, use the force of your willpower to control how much time you’re spending, you’re pitting a child against the world’s greatest product designers, and that’s just not a fair fight,” he said.
Murthy called for increased transparency from social media companies about their impact on kids’ mental health, as well as more safety standards for apps.