Are they old enough?
How to navigate key online milestones for your child.
Parents and carers play a key role in guiding their children as they first encounter the online world and begin to learn through exploration, play and social interaction.
When is your child old enough to take their first online steps and begin to explore on their own? How soon are they ready for smartphones and social media accounts?
It is a good idea to protect younger children from online risks such as encountering harmful content, contact with strangers or missing out on physical activity. But it is up to you to decide when and how they take these first steps, and how best to support them as they begin their online journey.
On this page:
81% of parents with preschoolers say their children use the internet.
Of these parents, 94% report that their child was using the internet by the age of 4.
This might be via a tablet or iPad (92%), a smartphone (85%) or a computer (83%).
Should your preschooler be using online devices?
Children often have access to connected devices like tablets and smartphones from a very young age. They might be watching a favourite program through streaming services, using educational apps or simply viewing photos with your family and friends.
If you set some rules, manage access and stay involved, there is no reason why your preschooler should not enjoy the benefits of being online. You can also read our tips on online safety basics for preschoolers.
How much time should my child spend online?
There is no magic figure. The right amount of time that children should spend online is debated, with recent research suggesting the evidence of harm relating to screen time is overstated. Choosing the right amount of screen time for your preschooler will depend on the individual needs of your child and your family.
When deciding how much time your preschooler should spend online, consider the following factors
- your child’s age and their maturity level
- their individual learning needs
- your family’s routine
- your level of involvement and interaction with them while they are online
- the quality and nature of what they are doing online
It can be easy to focus only on the amount of time spent online, but the quality of the online media they are engaging with, and your involvement and interaction with them while they are using online media, is just as important.
For example, a five-year-old can get a lot out of spending 30 minutes creating an artwork on a screen together with you. An activity like this, involving the imaginative use of shape and colour, can help them to develop their fine motor and conversational skills.
Our guide to screen time for parents and carers can help you work out a healthy balance across your child’s online and offline activities. It also includes the signs to watch out for if your child’s online activities may be having a negative impact on them.
How do I choose age-appropriate content?
Good-quality media can support your child’s learning, especially if it ties in with their interests or sparks their imagination.
The following sites can help you make informed decisions about your family’s entertainment choices.
- Check age ratings and consumer advice for apps and games on devices your children use via the App Store or Google Play. Visit the Australian Classification Board’s online database when reviewing movies and games.
- Raising Children Network has advice about choosing video games, online games and apps.
- NetAware (UK) offers a guide to popular social media apps, sites and games, including risks, age recommendations and safety tips.
- Children and Media Australia provides reviews of movies, apps and games, including gambling content advice, searchable by age and platform.
- Commonsense Media (US) offers a database of apps, games and websites searchable by age.
Is your child old enough for a smartphone?
A smartphone is about much more than making phone calls. It allows your child to spend time online using their own device, rather than a shared family tablet or computer. It literally puts the online world in their hands.
For many parents and carers, giving a five year old their own smartphone may seem like it is a step too far. For others, it might offer them peace of mind and security to know they can keep in touch with their child – especially in an emergency.
The right age for your child will depend on their level of maturity and your family routine. It is worth asking yourself the following questions before handing over a digital device.
- Does my child have a good sense of responsibility?
- Are they able to stick to the rules?
- Do they show a good understanding of actions and consequences?
- Do they come to me or another trusted adult when they are distressed or if they encounter problems?
- What are the rules about when and where my child can use their smartphone? For example, will they only be able to use it while they are away from the house, and not in their bedroom at night.
For younger children it may be best to start with a mobile phone without internet access, and only introduce a smartphone when they demonstrate an appropriate level of maturity. There are a range of mobile devices available that allow you to control which tools or services your child has access to.
Some younger children might argue that they are ready for a smartphone, especially if their friends already have one. But it is worth holding out until you feel confident that your child is mature enough.
If you have a family online safety contract (see online safety basics), it would be a good idea to go through it carefully with your child in the context of the new responsibilities they are taking on with their own phone.
When are they ready for social media accounts?
Both the physical age of your child and their level of maturity and resilience can affect their ability to have positive experiences on social media.
Each social media site and app has its own criteria for minimum age requirements. Most require users to be at least 13 years of age before they can register, although some sites are created especially for children under 13.
Generally, the 13-year age requirement is not necessarily because the site is unsafe for children to use but to comply with a US law — the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 (COPPA), which prevents collection and storage of personal information from children under 13 years of age.
What are the benefits and risks of using social media?
Key questions to help determine your child’s readiness for social media
We suggest considering these questions to determine whether your child is ready for social media.
Does your child know how to deal with negative online experiences?
If you think your child would be very upset by a negative experience online, you may need to guide them closely if you allow them to establish a social media account.
Look through online profiles and public feeds together, and talk about how some people behave differently online. Teach them how to filter abusive comments, block and report people.
Does your child understand the importance of protecting their personal information?
Explaining to a child why privacy is important can be difficult. Start by describing what personal information is. Emphasise that it includes anything that can identify them, such as their mobile number, email address, photos, the name of their school, and any sporting clubs they belong to. Remind them that photos can contain information that could be used to identify them, such as a photo taken right outside your house or a photo of them in their school uniform.
Let them know that if they share personal information online, it could mean that others, including strangers could use it in ways they may not have thought about. Someone could even post bullying messages or inappropriate photos on social media while pretending to be them.
See privacy and your child for more tips on this.
Does your child understand how privacy settings for social media work?
Show your child how to view the privacy settings for each social media service you use. Talk about the settings you have selected for your accounts and why you chose them. You can find advice on privacy settings in The eSafety Guide.
If you would like help with technology, including how to use social media services yourself, Be Connected provides step-by-step advice on the basics and more.
Does your child understand what is safe to share online?
If you are concerned your child may post personal information that allows people to identify and locate them – even after you have talked about the dangers – then they may need your help to use social media sites.
Discuss the risks of 'checking in', tagging people in photos, sharing nude or sexually suggestive pictures, meeting online friends in person, making offensive comments and other behaviour that is considered unacceptable.
Does your child know how to report cyberbullying and other kinds of abusive content?
Although there are huge benefits to being connected through social media, your child may experience some form of online bullying or harassment. If this happens, it is important that they know how to manage and report this behaviour.
Together with your child, check the safety resources for individual social media services and look for information about how to block and report other users. Read The eSafety Guide for more online safety advice including how to report inappropriate content on different platforms.
You can also report online harm to eSafety. We can help you with:
- Cyberbullying – when someone uses online content or communication to seriously humiliate, seriously harass, seriously intimidate or seriously threaten a child or young person under the age of 18.
- Image-based abuse – when someone shares, or threatens to share, an intimate photo or video of a person without their consent, no matter what their age.
- Child sexual abuse material – we prioritise the investigation of online child sexual abuse material and work with law enforcement to remove this content wherever it is hosted.
Find out more about how to make a report to eSafety.
Is your child willing to let you establish clear rules and supervise their social media activity?
It is a good idea to supervise your child’s online activity, at least initially and certainly with younger children. Be clear on things like when and where online devices can be used and when they need to be switched off. The way a preschooler or younger child begins to use connected devices will instil good online habits from the start and help them transition to using social media later on.
When your child first starts to use social media, talk with them about how to do this in a way that you are both comfortable with. Help them to understand why and how you would like to support them as they begin to explore. It may be tricky having this conversation, particularly with tweens and teens, but getting their agreement will keep the lines of communication open between you and ensure that they feel able to come to you for help if they encounter any problems. This is especially important so you can continue to support them.
Talk with your child about which social media services they would like to use.
Come to an agreement you are both comfortable with about how they can use these services. You might discuss the following:
- Which types of content they can post – it is a good idea to look at examples together and discuss the pros and cons of different posts.
- How often they should post.
- How often you are comfortable with them checking social media.
You can read more about creating a family online safety contract in online safety basics.
Another strategy is to become their friend or follow their social media accounts. This will enable you to observe what they are doing online and support them to make safer choices about what they share and how they share it. But be prepared to learn more than you might like about their friends and possibly about them.
Try to resist talking about the specifics of their online activity unless, for example, you are worried about particular things they have posted – and keep your comments offline. It is much better to start the chat in person, one-on-one, and let them guide the discussion if specific issues come up, than it is to post online safety tips in comment form. If you intervene too much or comment publicly, it can embarrass them and break their trust. This may prompt them to use a separate profile without your knowledge or restrict what you can see by sharing to restricted groups of friends or followers, before you think they are ready to venture out on their own.
Finding the right balance about how much to supervise your child’s online activity will depend on your family’s culture and the individual needs of your child. Be prepared for your child to need more support from you at particular times, and to resist your support at other times. Eventually they will be ready to explore on their own – but keep the lines of communication open so they can come to you with any concerns they may have.
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