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How young is too young for social media? Behavioral scientists are closer to an answer

Children who joined Snapchat or Instagram before age 11 displayed “problematic digital behaviors” but also greater online civic engagement.

How young is too young for social media? Behavioral scientists are closer to an answer
[Source Images: CMB/Getty]

Recent literature has put the spotlight on how technology and social media are molding the next generation, and the consensus seems to be that it’s a sharp double-edged sword.

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New research published in Computers in Human Behavior is no exception. The study, led by faculty at Wellesley Centers for Women, found that joining social media—specifically, Snapchat and Instagram—before age 11 was significantly linked to more “problematic digital behaviors” compared to those who joined the platforms when they were older.

The team surveyed over 750 middle schoolers in the Northeast United States, and found that those who joined these platforms at or below age 10 had more internet buddies that parents would disapprove of, and visited more social websites that were similarly frowned upon. They also showed more “unsympathetic online behaviors” and were more likely to become victims of online bullying or harassment. Altogether, it was a jumble of problematic digital moods.

Of course, that might not be news to social media giant Facebook; a recent trove of leaks in the Wall Street Journal revealed how the platform was aware for some time that it was “toxic” for teen girls, and also detailed its ambitions to lure tweens and pre-teens with targeted kid-specific products. Like almost all social media, including Twitter and TikTok, Facebook’s rules require users to be at least 13 years old to join. However, people who sign up self-report their own dates of birth, so it’s hardly an effective firewall—and by common sense, it’s nearly a given that packs of rogue children are roaming the social media universe.

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In fact, “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,” study author Linda Charmaraman said in a statement. But that doesn’t mean it’s a lost cause. The study’s findings also suggest parents can combat the harmful impacts by limiting how often their kids check social media, or restricting phone usage; participants who reported such parental controls showed lessened negative effects.

And it’s not all bad: According to the research, those who joined social media before age 11 also showed greater civic engagement within the online community—such as posting supportive content or fostering events and activism for social issues—perhaps as their socialization at a younger age helped them grasp both the positive and negative potentials of such platforms. Also, regardless of when they joined social media, early adolescents displayed more positive digital behaviors overall than negative ones.

Reached for comment about the study, a Snapchat spokesperson said the platform “is designed to be used by young people ages 13+, which is why we prohibit the app being used by kids, do not market to that age group, and will not make a specific product for them.”

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When asked to comment, Instagram directed us to company head Adam Mosseri’s blog, from which they provided this statement: “We firmly believe that it’s better for parents to have the option to give their children access to a version of Instagram that is designed for them — where parents can supervise and control their experience — than relying on an app’s ability to verify the age of kids who are too young to have an ID.”

As the first children raised in the social-media era grow into their 20s and 30s, the effects of the internet revolution will likely become more profound—and we can expect that the need to understand how tech shapes kids in their most impressionable years will only become more urgent.

This article has been updated to reflect comments from Instagram.

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