Is there a “right” age to let kids get Instagram?

By Lauren Apfel

“I love you soooooo much, Mommy!” This is my ten year old, Oliver, his twiggy arms tight around my waist, his head burrowing, hard, into my side.

The adoration feels good, I admit, but it’s not a spontaneous declaration of love. The kid is pandering. His posture and sugar-sweet tone remind me of when he was younger, when he would turn on the charm because he wanted more dessert or an extra half hour of TV. Oliver has always known how to butter me up. Today, however, he wants something different, something indicative of his actual age and with further reaching consequences than another episode of The Clone Wars.

What he is begging for is an Instagram account.

Instagram has only recently come onto Oliver’s radar. We’ve discussed his potential usage of social media before, in general terms, but now, all of a sudden, there is a new urgency. Everybody in my class has it, he says, which is false. My best friend just got it, he says, which is true and, apparently, the game changer.

I’m usually quite decisive on these kinds of parenting questions. Through some combination of instinct and over-analysis, I arrive at a decision, rather quickly, that feels right for me and whichever of my kids it affects. Here, though, I am uncharacteristically torn: Does my son, at the tender age of ten, really need to start down this thorny path? And so the decision is taking longer than Oliver is used to. Which means he has had opportunity to try out different tacks: the loved-up phase alternating with the sulking phase alternating with random, veiled references to his plight, because I’ve made it clear that he if mentions the goddamned word “Instagram” one more time the answer will be an automatic NO.

My hesitation isn’t to do with screen time per se. I’m actually a big fan of screen time. Oliver has an iPad mini on which he spends many hours a week watching YouTube, playing games, coding, etc. Nor is my hesitation to do with safety. The account he is angling for would be private and I am inherently comfortable with the level of protection that does, or does not, afford.

What’s giving me pause, I think, is the very nature of social media, its undeniable power, both as a platform where anything can happen and as a force unto itself, the way it tends to bewitch its users like a virtual snake charmer.

Don’t get me wrong: I love social media. And yet, I also know well the negative effects it can have. How easy it is, even as an adult, to lose your footing on the slippery slope of caring too much about what other people think. Of performing, often inauthentically, for an audience. Of measuring your worth in likes or favorites or comments. Right now Oliver is blissfully free from all of that, still an innocent, at least in this respect. He uses his iPad on his own schedule, for his own enjoyment. He isn’t religiously checking whether his posts have culled any reaction, whether they’ve garnered enough attention. He hasn’t become a slave to the notification icon.

“Don’t you trust me?” he asks and I do, I really do, which is the bulk of the counter argument. That social media is the norm these days, that it can be a great avenue for connection (especially for people like my introverted son), that kids are exposed to it at increasingly young ages, despite the guidelines, and that learning good usage is part and parcel of growing up in the modern age. If a tween is asking for it, is willing to adhere to the rules you set, and if you genuinely believe he will use it responsibly, what’s the harm?

It matters to me what other parents are doing on this front. Not because I am unhappy to go against the grain, but because I like to check myself for irrational overprotectiveness. I am continually fighting the instinct to hover, to coddle. I’ve made certain allowances in the past—letting my kids play outside unsupervised, for example, or walk to the local shop by themselves— simply because the other parents in the neighborhood were making them too. And while I recognize that values differ between families and that not all ten-year-olds can handle the same things, I do believe in the concept of a broad consensus on what constitutes an age appropriate activity.

Our kids will probably be on social media, in some form or another, for the rest of their lives. What difference, then, does a couple of years make? Maybe starting that little bit earlier will be a positive experience for Oliver, will acclimate him to the ins and outs of online interaction—a “social media lite,” as it were, where the stakes are still low and the parents still somewhat in control— before he morphs into a truly angsty, truly private teenager. Or maybe saying yes now will mean depriving him of one or two more precious years when he would otherwise be spared the rigors of this particular popularity contest.

Author’s update: I didn’t let Oliver get Instagram that year. I waited until he turned eleven and there was enough of a shift in his maturity and understanding that it felt “right.” I have no regrets—he isn’t even particularly interested in it anymore. He dabbles, and I’m convinced that finding a middle ground between starting too early and waiting too long is, at least, in part responsible for his healthy relationship to social media. My second child, Leo, is turning eleven shortly and has just signed up for an account. It seems to be the magic age in our family.

Lauren Apfel is co-founder and executive editor of Motherwell. She has become a huge fan of Instagram itself since Oliver started using it, but is still baffled by the Stories. Connect with her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.  

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