Safeguarding young minds

Guide to safer social media for kids

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Parents and carers are the most important people in kids’ lives. We appreciate the challenges that come with raising children in the digital age. Knowing when and how to introduce social media, and guiding its use, can be difficult.

We have prepared this guide to help parents and carers navigate this complex issue.

Recommendations

Queensland Health recommends parents limit access to social media for children under the age of 14 years, closely monitor and support children as it is introduced, and restrict time until healthy habits are established.

We support parents, carers and young Queenslanders to opt for a “safety first” approach to protect the mental health and wellbeing of our young people. This can include:

  • limiting access to social media for young people under the age of 14 years, including preventing young people from creating their own social media accounts and using social media without supervision
  • closely monitoring and supporting young people when social media is introduced
  • engaging young people in open discussions about social media content
  • ensuring young people’s social media engagement is short in duration, and healthy in content
  • promoting positive behaviours by everyone in the home, including no devices in bedrooms overnight

Why?

Early in 2024, Queensland Health brought together a group of mental health and social media experts to look at the effects of social media on the mental health of young Queenslanders.

This followed the latest data from The health of Queenslanders: Report of the Chief Health Officer. It showed a worrying drop in the mental health and wellbeing of young people across Queensland. Especially young girls.

Between 2008-09 and 2020-21 there was a three-fold increase in self-harm injury hospitalisations for Queensland girls up to 14 years.

It is important to note that we are also seeing a significant deterioration in the mental health of boys.

Social media and children

Most social media apps are not supposed to register users under 13 years old. However, this is rarely enforced.

Social media has its benefits, including offering a sense of belonging, connection and reducing isolation.

However, there are risks when children access social media. Images, videos and experiences shown on social media platforms can be inappropriate for young minds. Children may not have the developmental maturity to cope when they view this content.

Social media platforms use algorithms to feed users content based on what they engaged with before. Even accidentally watching unhealthy or potentially harmful content can trap young people in a cycle where they see more of it.

This can normalise behaviours or expectations that are inappropriate or are unrealistic. It may also lead to behaviour changes or make young children feel anxious and overwhelmed. There are associations with mental health problems, including low self esteem and body image problems.

Tips for parents and carers

For the purpose of this statement, we are talking about social media such as TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat. There is a lot of difference between a child using an age-appropriate website or online game, or a basic text messaging service, and opening an account on a social media channel.

Here are some tips for how to go about following the recommendations from the panel of mental health experts.

Talk with other parents and carers

One of the challenges with implementing a change is hearing that “everybody else is doing it”. It is normal to worry that your child might be isolated or excluded from activities that other children are doing. This is often called a “collective action problem”.

One way this can be overcome is if parents and carers talk with one another and implement a plan together.

It is worth noting that adolescents in one report said they understood the negative aspects of social media and would be comfortable if it was restricted—provided it happened to everyone in their peer group!

Consider if they need a smart phone or tablet

Many children have a smart phone or other device because parents and carers like to know they are safe and to be able to call them.

To ensure kids are safe and can be contacted, other options include GPS trackable watches, phones that have tracking but which do not download apps, and call-only phones (e.g. old-school “flip phones”).

These are often much cheaper than smart phones. They can also include messaging functions so young people can still communicate with their friends via text.

Friends and socialising

  • Many older children and teenagers socialise or plan social activities online. It can be tough for a child not to have social media if their friends do. They may feel left out or isolated.
  • Basic text messaging services can still enable children to communicate with their friends.
  • It can be helpful for you to know if their friends are on social media, as your children will likely be wanting to do the same. Discuss this with them in an open and respectful way, letting them know that you understand that they may feel left out, and explaining your reasons, and that it won’t be forever.
  • Stay engaged with what your children are doing online outside of social media, so that this is the norm when social media is introduced.
  • Encourage online respect and empathy and encourage your children to tell you immediately if they are exposed to something that concerns or frightens them. It’s a good time before they start using social media to reinforce appropriate behaviours online.
  • Encourage them to learn about online safety by exploring the kids’ section of the eSafety website.

Age and maturity levels

The age of 14 is a general guideline based on current research and advice. Children mature at different rates. No-one knows your child like you do. Here are some things to think about when deciding whether your child is ready to have social media, or not:

  • Do they know how to deal with negative online experiences?
  • Do they understand the importance of protecting their personal information?
  • Do they understand how privacy settings for social media work?
  • Do they understand what is safe to share online (and what is not)?
  • Do they know how to report cyberbullying and other kinds of abusive content?
  • Are they willing to let you establish clear rules and supervise their social media activity?

(Courtesy of the eSafety Commissioner. See the website for more detail on each.)

Setting rules, expectations and consequences—the family technology agreement

The Australian eSafety Commissioner recommends you make a family technology agreement with your children. This is sometimes called a family media plan or family online safety contract.

These often feature rules about how devices such as smartphones, tablets, computers, TVs, and game consoles are used in your household (so these can include aspects broader than social media). There are templates available for:

Some things to note:

  • The family technology agreement could specify that no social media apps, sites or accounts can be used until the child reaches a specific age, such as 14. That way the rules apply to all, if there is more than one child.
  • Children start to recognise the concept of rules around the age of 3, so it’s never too early to start the conversation.
  • Make the consequences of breaking the agreed rules clear (and enforce them if broken).
  • Consider making some rules for teenagers and even adults in the household, so that they can model the behaviour you’d like to see in the younger children, and the agreements can seem fair on all.

Devices and screen time

  • Keep devices in the home in an area that is easily supervised. A common, or shared space is best. Check in regularly.
  • If you have agreed to no social media with your child, help them avoid temptation and do not let them keep devices in their bedrooms.
  • Have clear screen time limits in your family technology agreement.
  • Learn to use parental controls that are available on many devices, apps and services.
  • Consider turning off internet access in the home at a certain time in the evening or limiting it to only certain devices.

Introducing young people to social media

It’s best to negotiate an agreement on social media use that you both are comfortable with before a young person starts using it.

This agreement can form part of your family technology agreement. It can contain information such as:

  • what social channels they can have
  • what types of content they can post
  • where they can post
  • how often they can post
  • how often they can check social media.

Next steps

  • Before they start, check out some social media content together and talk about the different posts and how they could people feel. Remind them about the importance of respect and empathy.
  • Discuss the importance of online safety with them and encourage them to explore the eSafety website.
  • When they set up their social media account, show them how the privacy and other settings work, and how to report harmful content.
  • Friend/Follow their new social media account. You’ll be able to see what they (and their friends and followers) are doing online. You may learn more than you would like!
  • If you are worried about something they have posted, try not to comment or engage with them online. This is likely to embarrass them and feel like a betrayal of trust. They may make another profile that you don’t know about to avoid this. It’s better to have an in-person chat about it and let them guide the discussion.
  • Let them know they can always come to you if they are distressed or uncomfortable about anything that takes place on their social media.
  • Your child might need more support at times and push back against your support at others. Finding the right balance can be difficult but keeping the lines of communication open is the most important thing.

Resources

The eSafety Commissioner website has excellent, detailed information about almost every aspect of online safety, including social media use:

There are also excellent resources from other organisations dedicated to appropriate social media use and online engagement:

Key resources to support the mental health and wellbeing of young people include:

Chief Health Officer statement:

Position Statement: Social Media and the Mental Health and Wellbeing of Young Queenslanders (PDF 458 kB)

Last updated: 21 May 2024