OPINION: Should I let my kids use Threads? How is it different from the apps my kids use now?

Dan Barrett
Dan Barrett

It isn’t an outrageous comment to suggest that social media use by kids and teens continues to be a contentious issue in many households. Kids see their parents, siblings, and friends using the apps and want to get on there as soon as possible – even if the apps have supposed age limits on who is allowed. Meanwhile, teens are pushing the boundaries in terms of what they are viewing and, for some more adventurous teens, what images and videos they are posting.

Many parents establish ground rules with their children about social media use, often related to:

  • Which apps are they allowed to use
  • How long are they allowed to spend on the apps each day/per week
  • Parental access to their kids account
  • What sort of content is okay to post
  • Which accounts are okay to follow and engage with

Once these ground rules are established, most parents will tell you that getting their children to actually stick to the hoped-for rules becomes a constant conversation. And when it comes to managing the role of enforcer with older children and teenagers, the push-back against previously agreed boundaries can be hard to handle.

When a new social media app starts to generate traction, it makes those conversations even more difficult, as parents and guardians set terms on how the new app is to be used, without properly understanding how the app works and what the benefits/pitfalls of that app can be.

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Just this week, the launch of the Meta-owned Threads presented a fresh challenge for parents. So far, it’s difficult to understand what the use-case is for Threads and how it will be different to Twitter.

At first glance, Threads appears to just be a Twitter clone. We have seen a bunch of them in recent months after Elon Musk came along and ruined the bird app. The hard-to-use Mastodon, the invite-only Bluesky, and the news-focused Post News have all come along and underwhelmed.

For many parents, the assumption may be that Threads won’t be a concern because most children and teens haven’t been all that interested in Twitter, which appeals to an older crowd.

But what makes Threads different, and worth paying attention to, is it is a spin-off from Instagram, which the kids are into (when they aren’t busy watching TikToks). This means that, not only is the tone of the platform different to Twitter (with Instagram users often having a different mindset / range of interests), but also the Instagram app is being used as an on-ramp for its users to embrace a text-based version of the service.

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It is still only a week old, so we don’t know how Threads users will embrace the app and how engagement will be different to Twitter and other text-based social media. It may end up being more like the image-based Instagram in ways that we simply don’t understand yet.

Should family rules around Instagram use just be transferred over to Threads? It may be a more complex issue than it seems.

The impact of text-based social media

One of the best things about social platforms is that it has opened the door to freedom of expression to all voices. A lot of cultural progress has been made over the past 10-15 years thanks to the opportunity that social platforms have given to marginalised voices.

Twitter, in particular, has been a hugely influential platform for giving voice to those who often haven’t been heard by mainstream media – thanks to the high volume of journalists and other media professionals who use it. Many voices and opinions previously considered as fringe have become part of mainstream conversation now. The fact that it is text-based gave rise to greater sharing of ideas than an image-based platform like Instagram, or video platforms like TikTok and YouTube. In those spaces, anonymity is removed and a greater emphasis is placed on charismatic and photogenic talent.

Of course, some of the worst things about social platforms is the way they expose some unsavoury views and give rise to problems like hate speech online.

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Parents need to appreciate that every platform and media type brings with it individual concerns that need to be considered. The concerns for Instagram use are obvious – chiefly, that it can have a serious detrimental impact on self-esteem due to perceptions surrounding beauty, self-image, and materialism/lifestyle. Exposure to text-based social platforms delivers different user engagement.

The best way to think about platforms like Threads and Twitter is to liken them to the way we used to think about university in a pre-digital world (AKA the good old days of horse and buggies and Blink-182). It used to be that many of us would go to school and live our lives in a fairly sheltered community bubble, then go to university and become exposed to a much broader range of people and concerns. For many of us, it opened our eyes to different ideas and perspectives.

Today, however, our youth are being exposed to these ideas earlier in life, thanks to these social platforms. And while it may be all very good and well for the more progressively minded of us to consider that awakening to be a good thing – and that kids should be encouraged to find out what freak flag they want to fly earlier in life – there are genuine concerns we should have.

Youth are impressionable and, while exposure to the wider community and different types of voices can be a good thing to cultivate greater understanding, empathy, and consideration, there are also bad actors in the community who are exposing these same impressionable minds to toxic and concerning material.

What should parents do?

The launch of Threads really is “yet another thing to be worried about.” But, another way to look at it is that it poses an opportunity, which is the same opportunity that all of these social apps provide: It gives parents an entry point to talk to their children about the topics they are being exposed to.

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Because digital communications play a role in their lives, today’s youth are exposed to a greater range of voices and opinions that may or may not align with the values you have established as being important in your household.

Part of our responsibilities as parents and caregivers is to provide guidance to our children and to help shape their morals as they navigate the complexities of the world. Threads opens the door to a need for more frequent communication about issues that can be difficult (and even embarrassing) to discuss. Sometimes (often) you may not even have all of the answers, which is okay.

You may also want to think about what rights to privacy are being given away (Threads has a very similar privacy policy to Instagram).

Ultimately, it is up to every parent to decide how engaged they want their children to be online and which platforms they are on. Consider the sorts of material and conversations you feel comfortable about your kids being exposed to and how you can play a role in shaping how they consider that content.

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Dan Barrett is the Head of Content at EducationDaily's publisher. He is a Brisbane-based writer/producer/comms professional who has worked for organisations including SBS, Mediaweek, National Seniors Australia, iSentia, the NSW Dept of Customer Service, and Radio National. He is passionate about the Oxford comma and is one of Australia's earliest podcasters.