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So far my wife and I have only introduced our kids (20 months and 3.5 year old) to TV. We don't plan on getting them a tablet or any handheld devices.

However, we do eventually want to introduce them to a proper PC with monitors and a keyboard, that isn't internet connected.

My question is, are there any established, scientific guidelines on when to introduce children to the internet? This is assuming that they'll likely get some use of it at school.

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    – Rory Alsop
    Dec 22, 2023 at 16:24

5 Answers 5

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When one of my children was 7 years old, the school required some use of the internet by the students for assignments and for remote learning. We also started the kids on taking classes by remote learning outside of school even earlier. None of this had any ill effects that we could observe.

We have been avoiding social networks, as these are documented to be harmful for children in multiple research publications (see the links below).

I am not aware that the optimal age of introduction to the Internet, per se, has been extensively studied. By contrast, the general effects of video games, social media and screen time on children in general are better studied, but these are outside of the scope of this question.


References:

Social media studies:


OVERALL CONCLUSION: Many studies, using a variety of methods, have found associations between heavy social media use and bad mental health outcomes, particularly for girls. Some of the associations are very small, some are larger (e.g., a doubling of rates of depression as one moves from light to heavy usage in 1.1.4, Kelly et al. 2019; a large decline in depressive symptoms when college students were assigned to reduce social media usage in 3.1.1, Hunt et al. 2018). The recent publication of two papers that find no effect (2.2.1, Heffer et al. 2019), or negligible effects (1.2.1, Orben & Przybylski, 2019) is a normal part of the ongoing scientific debate about the effects of social media on teen mental health. We believe that journalists, legislators, parents, and teens would be making a potentially serious mistake if they interpret the minority of studies that find negligible or null effects as offering an “all clear” signal for teens to use social media in unlimited quantities, or from an early age. But we welcome feedback from researchers who disagree, and we will post short response essays below.

Haidt, J., Rausch, Z., & Twenge, J. (ongoing). Social media and mental health: A collaborative review. Unpublished manuscript, New York University. Accessed at tinyurl.com/SocialMediaMentalHealthReview


In particular: among girls, there is a consistent and substantial association between mental health and social media use (median betas from −0.11 to −0.24). These associations were stronger than links between mental health and binge drinking, sexual assault, obesity, and hard drug use, suggesting that these associations may have substantial practical significance as many countries are experiencing rising rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide among teenagers and young adults.

Twenge JM, Haidt J, Lozano J, Cummins KM. Specification curve analysis shows that social media use is linked to poor mental health, especially among girls. Acta Psychol (Amst). 2022 Apr;224:103512. doi: 10.1016/j.actpsy.2022.103512. Epub 2022 Jan 29. PMID: 35101738: PubMed


Internet use observational studies (not well-controlled):

In our study, children's Internet use was associated with obesity, psychological disturbances and social maladjustment.

Novaković S, Milenković S, Srećković M, Backović D, Ignjatović V, Capo N, Stojanović T, Vukomanović V, Sekulić M, Gavrilović J, Vuleta K, Ignjatović V. Children's Internet use and physical and psychosocial development. Front Public Health. 2023 Jun 8;11:1163458. doi: 10.3389/fpubh.2023.1163458. PMID: 37361154; PMCID: PMC10285096.: PubMed


Gender, age, digital media usage time and the intensity of negative emotions during the COVID-19 pandemic were all found to be significant predictors of Problematic Internet Use (PIU): female gender, increasing age, longer digital media usage time and higher intensity of negative emotions during the COVID-19 pandemic were associated with higher Short Compulsive Internet Use Scale (SCIUS) total scores. This study found a very high prevalence of PIU among 12- to 17-year-olds for the period after the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has increased significantly compared to pre-pandemic prevalence rates.

Paulus FW, Joas J, Gerstner I, Kühn A, Wenning M, Gehrke T, Burckhart H, Richter U, Nonnenmacher A, Zemlin M, Lücke T, Brinkmann F, Rothoeft T, Lehr T, Möhler E. Problematic Internet Use among Adolescents 18 Months after the Onset of the COVID-19 Pandemic. Children (Basel). 2022 Nov 10;9(11):1724. doi: 10.3390/children9111724. PMID: 36360452; PMCID: PMC9689314: PubMed

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    I wonder if there is any decent study that would show that social networks are harmful in general. It's certainly my strongly held view.
    – DRF
    Dec 21, 2023 at 18:25
  • @DRF Thank you for the comment! Updated the answer with more references. Dec 21, 2023 at 18:44
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    +1 for citing Jonathan Haidt. I came here to mention his research in the area, and it's good to see that the highest-rated answer already has that covered. Dec 21, 2023 at 20:30
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This isn't research and purely anecdotal. But as someone who's grown up with the internet, I thought I should share.

I think children can be introduced to the internet at an early age but it would be extremely unwise to do so without content filters in today's day and age.

Growing up, I had unrestricted access to the internet when I was around 4 (this would be circa 2000) and the internet was a much nicer place back then.

My interests at the start primarily were playing games online, collecting photos of random bacteria and microorganisms, collecting pictures of space, and collecting surreal 3D art in a giant folder (I really need to find those folders).

The most dangerous vector here was games. I had once in a while encountered questionable ads/content on the games sites I would visit but as a kid my primary interest was the games so luckily that didn't end too badly.

Keep in mind this was 2000. Today it's 2023, there are armies of marketers, data scientists, and software engineers being paid 6 figures+ to make those ads as difficult to ignore as possible and very quickly a kid can click a few ads and end up exposed to adult content, end up on a forum with adult topics or generally toxic topics being discussed etc.

To recreate the 2000s era internet today would be to offer the same internet but heavily restricting adult content, restricting most social media platforms, and even restricting particular forums like 4chan or certain parts of reddit etc.

I would even probably just block most game sites (I am sure they are much more addictive today than they used to be) and require the kid to go through an approval process for game sites to be unblocked. Something like Runescape (while certainly addictive!) is probably not going to lead to a dark rabbit hole. On the other hand, if you encounter a sketchier free games site which could have adult ads, then you might want to wait on allowing access to that until your kid is old enough to know what the negative consequences of that could be.

Staying along sites like Wikipedia, Stack Exchange, the better parts of reddit, and whatever on google passes some restrictive content filters would be safe. And you probably can in that case offer internet access even as young as 4-6?

Just keep them away from addictive games, social media, toxic forums, adult content, and violent content.

The "academic" part of the internet is probably just as fine today as it was 20 years ago when it was almost the only thing in town.

In some sense, maturity might be tracked by how few content filters the kid has in their access to the internet. Starting off with very restrictive and gradually lightening up as they mature. Where on day 1 you are probably only allowed to access .edu sites and then the filters gradually lighten up from there.

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    I can't say I consider 2000s internet a nicer place than todays. I would consider the chances of coming across adult ads higher during that time than today, in part BECAUSE of all the personalized ad stuff. Maybe your parents just had filters in place for their 4-year old. Or you were lucky, or simply stayed on the right sites.
    – kutschkem
    Dec 20, 2023 at 11:22
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    @adam.baker Why filter Wikipedia? Dec 20, 2023 at 18:26
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    @T.E.D. Definitely a thing. There's even a cheating service for it: observe that Teletubbies is 2 clicks away from WWII, and 3 clicks away from a randomly-selected genocide. That said, I never found such things while playing this game.
    – wizzwizz4
    Dec 20, 2023 at 22:53
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    @T.E.D. Yeah. Ban Wikipedia if you're the sort of parent to ban libraries, but otherwise, I think it's one of the safest places online. It doesn't even have ads.
    – wizzwizz4
    Dec 20, 2023 at 23:41
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    Use adblocker is a must
    – minhng99
    Dec 21, 2023 at 9:30
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I'll do something unorthodox and answer a part of the question that has been removed (by someone else), since I have personal experience with that exact issue and believe it can be answered in a way that is both helpful and on-topic.

However, we do eventually want to introduce them to a proper PC with monitors and a keyboard, that isn't internet connected.

My question is, does anyone foresee any problems with keeping our kids away from the internet as long as possible, but hopefully still teaching them computer skills?

Yes, it's possible to teach kids computer skills with a disconnected device. We got each one an old laptop and installed the stuff that we wanted them to play with.

It worked. They learned how to use the mouse and the keyboard, and they were only exposed to the software we wanted to expose them to: MS Word, educational software, and some age-appropriate point-and-click adventure games.

Note, though, that modern technology will try to work against you: You have to jump though hoops to make Windows 11 install without an online connection, and much software nowadays requires online activation. So, having some experience in retrocomputing is helpful for this endeavor.

We don't plan on getting them a tablet or any handheld devices.

This, however, is something I would suggest that you reconsider: We found that those devices are extremely helpful for gradually exposing your kids to technology in general and the Internet in particular.

On the PC, the web browser is the main method for accessing the Internet.¹ On mobile devices, however, you have apps:

  • Apps only provide access to one particular (Internet) service and
  • you can control which apps are available to your kids: You can get them a dedicated device, or you can just activate the "kids mode" on your family tablet and whitelist the apps that should be available there (that's what we did).

This also answers your next question:

When would be the latest appropriate age to let them access the internet?

It depends on the service.

You think they are ready for streaming their favorite TV shows? Make the streaming app available to them. You want them to practice reading and typing? Install an instant messenger and add (only) mommy and daddy as contacts. You think they are mature enough to read an encyclopedia without adult supervision? Install the Wikipedia app.

With apps, you can expose them to exactly that part of the Internet you want them to use.


¹ Yes, if you want to be pedantic, I know that services outside the WWW exist and that the "web browser" neither is nor was the only way to access Internet services.

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  • There's actually a case to be made to use Linux rather than Windows or Mac OS X, for children's first exposure to computers. Over the past two decades, Microsoft and Apple have both been behaving more and more like vampires who want to assimilates their whole customers' lives into their suits of products. Most Linux distributions are much better at being just what you want them to be and nothing more, which is much healthier for children.
    – Stef
    Dec 22, 2023 at 11:22
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It won't be up to you

The internet is ubiquitous, and your children will be exposed to it with or without your introduction - friends, family, random strangers. Also, kids are more clever than you think. When my son was 3 (he is now 27), I set up a browser with bookmarks to a couple of innocuous sites; when I checked on him, he was playing a game on www.lego.com, which I had not set up - he couldn't read, but he could recognise a URL on a Lego box and copy it into the browser. At 3!

Trying to ban access is likely to do more harm than good. Treat the internet like any worthwhile but hazardous infrastructure - like roads, swimming pools and electrical sockets. Teach them to use it safely and responsibly as soon as they are old enough to understand and supervise and guide them through when they make mistakes.

If you don't introduce them to the net, someone else will and that someone may not have your children's best interests in mind. I'm not saying they're malicious, but peer groups are, well, peer groups.

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    Right, I'm not suggesting banning them from it, I'm suggesting a way to introduce it to them in a careful and responsible way. I don't expect that we'll be able to hide it from them, but I think we should be able to keep it tightly regulated well into their childhood.
    – Cdn_Dev
    Dec 21, 2023 at 13:08
  • @Cdn_Dev yes, I can see that’s what you think. I think your thinking is misguided and that they will be exposed a lot earlier than you expect and in ways you don’t expect. Virtually everyone, including school children carries the internet in their pocket. My advice FWIW, is that you take them onto the internet far earlier than you are planning and guide their early experiences including warning them about the dangers and muccyness that is out there,
    – Dale M
    Dec 21, 2023 at 19:51
  • The question was "how do we carefully introduce a child to the internet?" not "how do I ban access to the internet." So just saying "Teach them to use it safely" is just not answering the question and saying "well, just do it right" ... which isn't very useful. Dec 22, 2023 at 19:36
  • @AzorAhai-him- no, the question was “when” and the answer is “as soon as they are old enough to understand”.
    – Dale M
    Dec 22, 2023 at 20:44
  • It's not, and that's not what you said? Dec 22, 2023 at 20:53
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I apologise in advance for not really answering your question, but I'd like to offer a different perspective, perhaps.

Firstly, I don't think there is an optmal age, other than when the child is interested in seeking knowledge; instead I think one should think of teaching good, critical thinking about what you find on the internet, by which I mean that we all should always ask whether (and why) the information we find is plausible. Children can learn this from an early age - they should always question authority (not necessarily reject, but question). Maybe the age for this will be some time after they start school.

Secondly, don't use computers and the internet for entertainment; well, try to avoid it. Passive entertainment is bad in so many ways, it is far better to get outside and getting dirty, play with others and scrape a knee. Children have a need to learn socialising and resilience - that they can overcome difficulties and succeed even after a setback.

And finally, be a little bit less involved and let go. This is quite hard to do for a loving parent, who often tends to take far too much care of children, to the extent that they will carry them on their hands. Step back a little, let them do their own thing, get the minor bruises they need, and stand ready with the plasters (or 'band-aid' I believe, in the US) and a cuddle.

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