Pre-teen social media use: Benefits and challenges for wellbeing

Michele Hervatin, Parenting Research Centre, Australia, November 2023

Resource Summary

This short article is for practitioners working with pre-teens (i.e. children aged 9-12 years) and/or their parents, where ‘parent’ refers to anyone in a parenting role, such as parents, carers, grandparents, or extended family. It is based on the practice paper Pre-teen social media use and the impact on mental health and wellbeing by Naomi Deneve, The Parenting Research Centre.

What are the ‘pre-teen years’ and why are they important?

The pre-teen years (i.e. ages 9–12 years) are a distinct period between early childhood and adolescence when rapid and significant changes in development occur (Evans-Whipp et al., 2017). Pre-teens are also experiencing a range of changes in the world around them: from changing peer relationships to school transitions (Mascia et al., 2023). It is also a time of increased vulnerability in emotional wellbeing – and many mental health concerns also begin in the pre-teen years (Kessler et al., 2007; Solmi et al., 2022).

Read more about what’s happening for children in the pre-teen years in our Supporting parents of pre-teen children with mild-moderate anxiety practice guide.

What do we know about social media use in pre-teens?

Technology, including social media, is a regular part of pre-teens’ lives, with use increasing during these years (Waugh & Close, 2011; Wade et al., 2022). During this period, there is also an emerging shift in the way technology is used; online activities are increasingly used for socialising, rather than individual-based activities like viewing videos (Joint Select Committee on Cyber-Safety, 2011).

In this article, social media is defined as any online platform that a pre-teen can use to interact with others. Examples include (but are not limited to): YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, Messenger, Fortnite, online games or video calls (Deneve, 2023).

How do developmental and parenting changes in the pre-teen years interplay with social media?

During their pre-teen years, children experience many developmental changes (e.g. cognitive, social, physical, emotional) (Evans-Whipp et al., 2017; Gilmore & Meersand, 2014). Importantly, these changes occur during a period when social media use is increasing, as parents are shifting to parenting approaches that reflect greater expectations of responsibility and independence from their child (Parenting Research Centre, 2019; Wade et al., 2019).

Table 1 summarises key changes experienced by pre-teens — and how these interplay with social media to foster benefits and challenges for pre-teens.

Table 1: Key changes experienced by pre-teens and their interplay with social media use

What do we know about the relationship between pre-teen social media use and wellbeing?

The connection between pre-teen social media use and wellbeing is complex (Granic et al., 2020) – and both social media use and mental health can be impacted by various factors. Nevertheless, the pre-teen years are a period of numerous significant changes, when children are particularly vulnerable to the onset of mental health concerns. Therefore, it’s important for practitioners to be curious about social media use during this time (Robinson, 2020), including whether it might be exacerbating other negative experiences, feelings or stressors the pre-teen is experiencing (e.g. bullying, appearance-related concerns, sleep changes, difficulties attending school). But remember, social media won’t always exacerbate wellbeing or mental health concerns. In some cases, it may be protective or support a pre-teen’s coping.

Our corresponding short article offers practice tips to support pre-teen wellbeing and positive social media use.



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