Should a 12-year-old have a personal YouTube account?

Michael Rich, MD, MPH

Michael Rich, MD, MPH, is Boston Children’s Hospital’s media expert and director of Boston Children’s Center on Media and Child Health. Send him a media-related parenting question via cmch@childrens.harvard.edu and follow him on Twitter @CMCH_Boston.

Q: My 12-year-old son wants a YouTube account so that he can post videos of himself talking about how to play certain games. He says he can earn money this way, as some of his friends do. He says he can be totally anonymous, so there are no risks. I told him I am willing to consider it, as long as I view the videos first, but he tells me he considers that an infringement on his privacy. What are your thoughts?

-Worried Mom in Berkeley, CA

A: Dear Worried,

Your impulse to be involved in your son’s digital life is right on—even if he doesn’t like it. This is just one of many experiences for which you will need to hang in there and parent him through during adolescence. Your son’s request for privacy arises from his natural developmental drive for autonomy, but he does not yet understand or define privacy the same way you do. And he is not yet able to monitor and protect it. It is your job to model and guide his developing responsibility and independence.

Twelve year olds are only just starting to be capable of formal, abstract thinking and are building their executive functions, like impulse control, future thinking, and understanding that actions have consequences. By staying closely involved at this point (which to him will feel like a violation of his privacy), you can help him build the skills he needs to manage his time online and earn his independence, online and IRL. Here are a few tips for how to navigate this situation:

Acknowledge that he wants privacy, but that online, privacy doesn’t really exist. If it’s there for you to see, it’s there for others to see. Your son sees privacy as keeping things away from you—but does not recognize that the real danger is from others who are interested in what they can take from him. As annoying as you might be, you love him and should be there to protect him from harm and from harming others.

Be careful with copyright. The video games he is planning on explaining are the intellectual property of a multibillion dollar business that is not afraid to protect their interests. Remember when the music industry hit children with lawsuits for hundreds of thousands of dollars for filesharing music? Although the video game industry may not do the same, YouTube is cracking down on copyright infringement of this kind. Look into ways of sharing the content legally.

Parent online as you do offline. You can only help him navigate this world if you are present in it with him. That’s why we recommend that you not only preview all the videos he posts, but that you have passwords for and you participate with him in all of his online activities, at least at first. That way, you can model and encourage good digital citizenship (just as you model being a good citizen IRL), help him notice and navigate tricky situations (like the unpleasant comments someone might leave on his channel), and supervise as he learns to navigate them on his own (with you there for support!). The internet is as powerful as a car, so be there in the front seat while he’s learning to drive it.

Let him know that, over time, he can earn the right to greater privacy. When he has demonstrated that he can handle the responsibility, offer him more privacy one step at a time (e.g., moving from having all of his passwords to not having his passwords but with the understanding that he’ll show you his account whenever you ask). At each stage, have open conversation about what you both observe happening online, and how he’s handling it.

Your son can find many positive ways of using YouTube and social media—and you as a parent can explore this with him, rather than lecturing or policing him. He may well push back, but knowing that you are paying attention may help him self-regulate, allowing you to transfer increasing responsibility and privacy to him as you stay connected, both online and offline, through his teen years.

Enjoy your media and use them wisely,

The Mediatrician®