Logging in and aging up

Social media gives kids unprecedented access to the world around them, but are they developmentally capable of handling real-life, negative stories?
October 20, 2017

By: Dr. Kara Liebeskind

On any school playground last October, it wouldn’t have been surprising to hear a passionate discussion about the merits of the two presidential candidates, but it may not have been the teachers who were overheard. Thanks to the prevalence of social media and its ever-lengthening reach toward younger users, children have unprecedented access to, and awareness of, the world around them.
Social media memberships supposedly require users to be at least 13 years old. But Smarty Pants’ 2017 Clicks, Taps & Swipes study reveals that nearly half of six- to 12-year-olds currently use a social media app or website. Perhaps not surprisingly, more than a third of them log in and connect with real-world and virtual peers at least once per day.
Instagram, and Facebook attract between one-quarter and one-third of US children, but an even higher number engages in the disappearing world of Snapchat. These numbers are growing, according to the annual study of nearly 8,300 US children. Compared to last year’s study, Instagram usage among this group is up 5%, Facebook and both climbed by 12%, and Snapchat posted a 14% gain.


“Liking” what you see

On one hand, social media can expose children to people and places that are different from them in every sense of the word, creating a global connection and awareness far beyond the parochial bubble that previous generations lived in at that age. This ready access to information and differing worldviews is invaluable and has enormous potential for cultivating children who are curious, cultured and compassionate. There have already been trends in this direction as far back as the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, which had children posting videos of themselves getting doused in ice water to raise awareness and donations. More recently, young people have been re-tweeting messages from people in Texas and Florida, hoping to attract attention to their calls for aid during the flooding. There is no doubt that children are more socially aware than ever before, which can offer huge opportunities for parents and educators to capitalize on positive stories and help children to process more negative ones.

I’m not “following” you

However, while children are physically adept at clicking a mouse and scrolling through a news feed, they’re not necessarily developmentally capable of handling stories about hurricane devastation, racially fueled protests, or threats of nuclear war. This type of news can make children angry, depressed and fearful. And although they should by no means be sheltered from the realities of the world in which they live, their exposure to this information should ideally not come through a click-bait headline that might not offer the context or scaffolding that young minds need. Safety is a huge concern at this age. The 13-plus age restriction on social media sites is designed to protect younger children, but its existence also means that those who circumvent the age policy are at risk of “informational insecurity,” or exposure to information that is intended for older users.

There’s a reason why the nightly news doesn’t include animated characters and presidential debates air long after bedtime. In their current form, children are not the target audience for these types of programs. Yet with increasing access to social media and its evolution into a secondary news source, kids are often the eventual consumers. As a result, they are having political debates on the playground—discussions that are riddled with inaccuracies and misinterpretations. “Fake news” is all the more problematic for an age group that already developmentally struggles to distinguish fact from fiction. When headlines are run through the filter of the school-age mindset and then passed by word-of-mouth around the monkey bars, the information is often half-true at best.


Sending a direct message

It’s not realistic to think that children can be shielded from the influence of social media, particularly as those platforms become integral parts of how people communicate with and relate to one another. Nor should children disconnect. However, to have an impact in the world, children need to not only be interested and engaged, but also accurately informed. Media literacy education thus becomes even more critical. Children need help interpreting information in a way that is thoughtful, critical and, most importantly, age-appropriate. Without this support, children remain vulnerable and at risk of being exposed to topics before they’re ready, sharing stories they don’t understand, and contributing to a social community that cuts both ways.


DR. KARA LIEBESKIND serves as Insights Guru at Smarty Pants, a youth and family research and consulting firm. KidInsight is derived from the company’s daily in-person and digital immersion into kids’ and families’ lives, as well as proprietary quantitative research. For more information contact Meredith Franck at 914-939-1897 or visit

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