(Gwenda Kaczor for The Washington Post)

Erin Mantz lets her two boys, Max, 11, and Zack, 8, use Instagram to keep up with their friends. She sees it as a normal part of social life for today’s tweens.

“I hate to say, ‘Everybody is doing it, so it’s okay,’ but if I block them from using it, I feel like it would be like when I was 11, my mom saying I couldn’t talk to my friends on the phone,” Mantz said. “It’s how they are social. I don’t think I can stand in the way of that unless I see something inappropriate. Then all bets are off.”

Both boys use their first names only as their user names. Max shares photos of things he has bought, Mantz said, or sayings that he likes. To Mantz, it seems pretty harmless.

Facebook and Twitter, however, are off-limits. Mantz considers those sites more appropriate for adults who use them for professional networking and information gathering. She also said none of their peers use them.

Facebook — with its requirement that users be at least 13 — and Twitter are indeed geared toward older teenagers and adults, according to experts. Gwenn O’Keeffe, a pediatrician and spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics, said parents should follow those restrictions because children younger than 13 are not developmentally ready for the nuances of the social interactions on those sites.

Social media are so interwoven with kids’ lives, though, that to bar them from using the sites at all is not realistic. In fact, if parents don’t let their children use social media, they are not equipping them with the skills they need to function in the digital world, according to Caroline Knorr, parenting editor of Common Sense Media.

“Social networking today is really just a natural part of the way kids and teens are growing up,” Knorr said. “They use social networking to explore some of the natural developmental issues that they are going through.”

But using social media can come at a cost when kids use it to bully or tease classmates, so it’s important to teach children that they are interacting with real people online, O’Keeffe said.

“We live in a digital world,” O’Keeffe said. “You have to start incorporating lessons about this as soon as they show interest, as young as you can go. It’s just like teaching your child not to put his finger in a light socket.”

Parents can use the chat functions on sites such as Webkinz, which is geared toward children ages 6 to 13, as a way to teach kids to be kind in the online world, O’Keeffe said. (Common Sense Media has rated several social media sites for tweens on its Web site.)

When children start a Webkinz account, they give themselves a user name that is associated with their virtual pet. They can invite their friends’ “pets” to play games or chat with them on the site.

Webkinz has two levels of chats. With KinzChat, which is designed for younger children, users can choose from preset messages such as “Which Clubhouse room is your favorite?” and cannot enter their own text.

KinzChat Plus is intended for children ages 10 and older. It allows children to type messages, but the system uses word monitors to screen for personal information or inappropriate content. The site also encourages parents to use it with their children to monitor what they are doing.

“Teach them to treat each other well, to be a good friend, to not bully,” O’Keeffe said. “That’s how to treat people when you’re using technology, and when you’re not using technology. Include both sides of that coin all the time.”

That will prepare them for the interactions on Facebook and Twitter when they get older, and teach them to think of their friends on social media as real people with feelings.

David Graziano of Oakton said he was not prepared for the social drama of having a teenage daughter on social media. His daughter, Devon, is 14 and has been using Facebook and Twitter for about a year. Sometimes, he said, the interactions among her peers turn vicious.

“I’ve seen her get really upset with flashes and flares of gossip amongst her friends,” Graziano said. “They all just kind of jump in; it’s like little piranhas swirling in the water.”

Graziano said that when he notices Devon getting too upset about things people are posting, he takes the phone away for a little while.

“It used to be that you would have flare-ups in school, but you would go home and that was it,” Graziano said. “Now you go home and get online and the flare-ups escalate. It’s worse for kids now.”

Knorr said it’s important to monitor how your child is reacting to social media to make sure they’re not becoming obsessed with using it, or upset by things that they have seen. Trouble signs include kids who are acting withdrawn or are obsessive about social networking, Knorr said. If your child is only happy when using social media, or noticeably sad after using it, those are signs that it is problematic.

O’Keeffe agreed, saying, “You have to help them create a balance so they’re not just connected to their social world online.”


Chat Thursday at 1 p.m. Join Emily Bazelon, author of “Sticks and Stones,” for a live Q&A about bullying and kids’ use of social media at washingtonpost.com/parenting .

Make your case: Should kids 13 and younger be allowed to use social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram? Vote at bit.ly/socialkids .