3 minute read

What Parents Need to Know About Instagram

Last Updated: October 23, 2020

Chris McKenna
Chris McKenna

Chris McKenna is a guy with never-ending energy when it comes to fighting for the safety and protection of children. He is the founder of Protect Young Eyes, a leading digital safety organization. Chris practices his internet safety tips on his four amazing children and is regularly featured on news, radio, podcasts, and most recently on Capitol Hill for his research. His 2019 US Senate Judiciary Committee testimony was the catalyst for draft legislation that could radically change online child protection laws. With expertise in social media usage, parental controls, and pornography use in young people, Chris is highly sought after as a speaker at schools and churches. Since 2016, Chris has worked with Covenant Eyes creating educational resources to help individuals and families overcome porn. Other loves include running, spreadsheets, and candy.

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.

  • Comments on: What Parents Need to Know About Instagram
    1. Cherie Henderson

      Wow, thank you for the information regarding instagram. I didn’t realize Tumblir was 17+ with all of that. Ugh! Thanks again for educating us. God Bless

    2. recently i saw that Kim kardashian is having a lot of photos that are nude or strongly sexually oriented. instagram allows kids 13 years old or more to open an account. also instagram have regulations regarding nude or sexually oriented photos or videos. Can any thing be done to protect kids from this type of digital or internet material?

      • Chris McKenna

        Hi Myrna – there is a lot of porn and inappropriate content in Instagram, not just Kim Kardashian. There is nothing to control that. And, no parental controls. These are the risks that come with Instagram. I’ve written extensively about the risks of the app here, if you want to know more: http://protectyoungeyes.com/content/instagram/

        Peace, Chris
        Covenant Eyes

    3. Debi

      Is there a way to hook an Instagram account to covenant eyes?

      • Chris McKenna

        Hi, Debi – no, it is not possible. There isn’t any service on the market that can provide parental controls/filtering or monitoring in Instagram unless you know the account. We are about to release an update to our iPhone accountability service that will allow parents to see that their child is using Instagram, but not the activity within it. The best defense for the app is constant conversation and periodic checks of the user’s phone to see if there are multiple accounts in use. It’s easy to tell – this blog post can help parents identify “fake” Finsta-like accounts (if you don’t know what those are, don’t worry – the blog post will help).


        Peace, Chris
        Covenant Eyes

    4. Chris

      Does covenant eyes monitor activity within stagram on a desktop when accessed through the web browser?

      • Chris McKenna

        Hi, Chris, yes, if you are accessing Instagram through the browser on your PC or Mac, and Covenant Eyes is installed, the pages will be rated and will show up on the detailed browsing log.


    5. Viviana

      Hi, I know a few people have asked already, but figured I’d ask again since the last post was a year ago. Has there been an update in covenant eyes that allows us to see activity in the Instagram app?

      • Chris McKenna

        Hi Vivian – we released our updated iPhone (iPad, too) service a few months ago. It can tell when you’ve used Instagram, but there’s very, very limited services that see anything going on in Instagram. Bark is one of the best, but it’s for kids and not adults. This is one of the limitations imposed on us by Apple’s operating system. I hope this explanation is helpful.


    6. Gabe

      Can covenant eyes see your searches on Instagram now?

      • Dan Armstrong

        Hi, which device are you asking about?

    7. Julie

      Can CE see the searches on Instagram on iPhone 7 or newer now?

    8. Julie


      I installed CE on a family members iPhone 7
      And later he installed VNP 360 on it. His reason was he couldn’t access school website with CE so he needed to have VNP 360.

      I wanted to know if CE would be able to monitor searches on the VPN 360.

    9. Christina Giunta

      My daughter is a HS sophomore. She turned 16 yesterday. We allowed her to have Instagram a few months ago. I regret it. It is the only Social Media account we have allowed so far. She does have GroupMe for school but that is about it. Her brother is 20 and we did not allow him to have ANY social media until he was 18. I am considering removing and blocking her Insta account after a couple months now. She has 510 followers and she is following 703! I have no way to monitor her Direct Messaging (I do use Bark though). But, in my opinion, it is too much to manage and I don’t have time for this! And, since getting it, she has wasted way too much time on it and her sleep and grades have definitely suffered since getting Instagram. Do some not allow it through High School? I know this article talks about Middle School but I am not so sure it is a good thing for High Schoolers as well. Too many distractions. Any thoughts would be appreciated.

      • Kay Bruner

        I am a therapist and I have seen girls this age become very negatively impacted by the demands of social media. Group pressure can be ENORMOUS and very difficult to deal with, and with social media, it may feel like they never get a break.

        Kids are learning the boundaries they will carry into adulthood, and they need coaching help with those boundaries. The basic idea of boundaries is identifying “what is okay and what is not okay with me.” And then deciding what behaviors will reflect what is okay and what is not okay.

        So those are the kinds of conversations I’d be thinking about. What does she have to say about her instagram use? What are her ideas and goals for social media? How does she feel it impacts her, positively or negatively?

        She is 16, and hopefully you’re moving more and more toward a coaching role in her life, positioning yourself to help rather than control. It’s really a balance of freedom and responsibility and helping kids manage that. At the same time, you’re still the responsible adult and it does impinge on your life, so you have your own boundaries to consider as well. It’s a very difficult balancing act to deal with at this age, for sure.

        I personally did not allow my children to have a smart phone until they had a job that could pay for it. That really kept things on the down low in our household on social media use, and yes we were the weirdest family ever! But for us, that was the balance between freedom and responsibility: if you are old enough to have a job that pays for this freedom, you are very likely more able to be responsible for it. Those were our family boundaries. And then when the kids were older and had their devices, we were able to help/coach on the use of them.

        Peace to you, and they DO GROW UP!!!

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