Many children are not ready for social media by age 13

Jul 6, 2015 at 8:24 p.m. ET
Image: Emma Kim/Getty Images

Last night I watched Into the Woods with my two boys, ages 4 and 8. We especially enjoyed the character Little Red Riding Hood, her sense of adventure and excitement and the lesson she shared: "Nice is not the same as good."

As you probably know, she was talking about the Big Bad Wolf. It was a great conversation starter because I think children (and even some adults!) confuse "nice" with "good." I fear for my kids who have grown up surrounded by technology; in this day and age we frown upon free-range parenting because of stranger danger. And while abductions are at a historic low, the reality is that the new woods are the internet, and we are seeing many cases of online predators creeping into kids' lives (watch an episode of Chris Hansen's To Catch a Predator and you'll cancel your family's Wi-Fi services).

This is all part of a bigger discussion my husband and I are having lately; how young is too young for a smartphone? Using the internet? Social media?

Shockingly, Consumer Reports published the results from a 2011 study that found 5,000,000 Facebook users are under the age of 10. Forbes cites research that 95 percent of these kids' parents know they are on Facebook, and 78 percent had parental assistance to set up their accounts (quick side note: Facebook requires users to be 13 years of age or older). With many parents now creating Facebook pages for their newborns, it's easy to see how kids are just itching to take over when they get older.

So, at what age should you allow your child to use social media? First, most social media sites don't want to deal with complying with COPPA (Children's Online Privacy Protections Act) under the FTC, which requires websites not to collect certain information from minors under the age of 13 (hence the 13 years of age or older requirement on most membership sites).

Is 13 still too young? It might be for your child. The experts at Common Sense Media agree that it's a decision to be made based on what you know of your child and what she can handle. They also have a terrific article on the talking points you should cover before giving your child a smartphone, and they're also great talking points for kids who want to use social media; things like being cautious, respectful and not taking photos or videos of others without permission. They also recommend "spot checks" on mobile devices, which is a good idea on social media profiles, too. Set this ground rule early; if you allow a smartphone and social media, your child should not expect total privacy at this age.

Many parents are giving into their kids' desire to conform to their peers; I'm bombarded daily by my third grader's stories of "so and so" bringing his iPhone to school and "so and so's" mom buying her a phone for her birthday. As difficult as it is for our son to accept, we've elected to wait a while. I don't know at what age we'll allow him to have his own phone with a data connection; it will come with time and maturity.

For now, he has one of our old iPhones with no data connection that he can use occasionally on long road trips or at the airport. He can play games, take photos, make notes and feel cool walking around with "his phone." But without data we aren't concerned about who he's communicating with or what he's sharing; he's learning to keep his tech-obsessive nature in check and he's learning not to misplace this expensive gadget that in the future may hold the key to his social life, banking information and more. We also have it password protected so he has to ask us permission to play games on it.

He can use the internet for school work and for answers to his many questions (how does a fish breathe? Why is the sky blue? Did the guy who made Minecraft really have to eat his vegetables?), but with supervision. With the influence of two social media-savvy parents, he has expressed interest in social media and we have allowed him to set up a Pinterest account. In my opinion, it's one of the tamer social media sites, with loads of appropriate content like crafting, decorating and recipes. I registered the account with my email address so that I would receive his notifications, and I "friended" his account with mine before marking his account private. We had a discussion about what inappropriate content he might run into and I do from time to time check his settings, his messages and what he's pinning (complete with boards for Minecraft, Legos... and this is my kid... fancy dining!) He's young, but he is mature and bright, and so far he's doing well with the privilege.

Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules. Maturity and responsibility are the key factors, and spot checks are a great option for keeping everyone honest and safe. So, what say you? How young is too young for social media? Do you think 13 is a reasonable age for most kids? What safety measures have you put into place?