So, your tween has been begging and begging for you to let them get an Instagram account. Should you let them?
A lot of parents are familiar with Instagram. You may even have your own account. But what you may not realize is that it’s not just about pictures.
Instagram is typically the doorway social media app for young Internet users. At the time of this video, now with over 400 million users, it is the most popular social media platform for teenagers. This is what makes it so important to understand how it works and some of the potential risks, so you can decide for yourself whether it’s right for your kids.
As a starting point, let’s remember that Instagram’s own rules say that users must be at least 13 to join. This is not to protect young kids from seeing inappropriate content, but to comply with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, which prevents companies from collecting certain information from kids under 13. This applies to most social media sites. This is important because allowing kids to open social media accounts of their own before age 13 might send a subtle message that it’s okay to be someone you’re really not.
Let’s take a look at how an Instagram account is set up, and some of the options. First, there are a few things to be aware of during the set-up process.
- Using your full name on the account is optional. Depending on your concerns about privacy, you might consider not having your minor son or daughter use both first and last name.
- Immediately after account set-up Instagram recommends that you follow popular accounts, like Justin Bieber or Victoria’s Secret, which may have inappropriate content.
Now, let’s look at some of the settings, which you can find under the icon at the bottom of the screen, furthest to the right that looks like a person. Click on the gear in the upper right corner, and select “options”. This is where you’ll see an on/off toggle for “Private Account.” The default setting is off, which means your profile can be seen by anyone, and anyone can see your posts and choose to follow you. If this is set to “on,” then all follow requests must be approved, and the “outside world” cannot see your posts, which is what we recommend for younger Internet users.
If you scroll down further on the settings screen, you’ll notice “Clear Search History” at the bottom. This is important, and we’ll come back to it later.
Go ahead and click on the house icon at the bottom left. This is where you will be given a few options to use your Facebook contacts, your phone contacts, or those that Instagram suggests. Parents, you’ll definitely want to be involved in some decisions here.
The next icon, the magnifying glass, is very important because it allows users to search for names (“people”), hashtags (“tags”) or places. If I’m a kid, and I want to hide my searches for inappropriate content, then this is where I do it. I don’t need the Internet anymore. Any Instagram user, with just a couple of clicks, can find an endless number of pornographic profiles, images, and videos here. And remember back in the settings, where it said, “clear search history” towards the bottom? If they search for “naked” or another such term, and then selected “clear search history,” you would never know. This is one of Instagram’s greatest weaknesses. Parents probably don’t know what their kids are searching for, whether their profile is private or not.
The camera icon in the middle allows users to take a picture or select one from their camera roll, and then apply a cool filter along with a comment, and post it to Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter or Flickr as it’s posted to their Instagram account. Note that you can tag people in the picture and also add location information. Use that information to talk to your child about privacy, and whether and when it’s okay to share this information online. For example, you may want to make a rule not to share location information on Instagram while your family is on vacation.
In the upper right corner, you’ll notice an inbox icon. This is Instagram’s “direct message” feature which is basically private texting within the app.
Now, these are some of the more technical or functional aspects of Instagram. But, there are many other aspects to the app that impact children.
- For young female users, study after study shows that the endless barrage of pictures shows girls what gets liked and what doesn’t. A constant whisper of comparison lurks heavy on Instagram for girls. Striving for a certain number of likes. Observing what types of bikinis or outfits get the most comments from certain guys, etc.
- For young male users, summer and spring break provide an endless stream of scantily clad tween and teen girls for them to ogle over.
- For savvy tech teens, if they click on the “blog” in the “settings,” they can access Tumblr, Facebook, and Twitter all without ever leaving the app. Tumblr is full of pornography and has even been outlawed in certain conservative countries. It is rated 17+ in the iTunes app store for a good reason.
Should your middle school son or daughter be using Instagram? Well, we’ll leave that up to you. Our goal is to make parents aware of the risks and uses, so that you can make an informed decision. We believe that parents who are observant, engaged and informed often have kids who learn how to use technology well.