With a quick google search, any thoughtful and invested parent can bring up millions of online articles concerning the what and how of Instagram with additional preliminary safety tips thrown in for good measure. In a digital age where media options are broadening faster than our ability to keep informed, such posts are a necessary introduction to the ins and outs of what their kids are doing on the expensive pocket-size computers parents are handing them, on average, at the age of 10 years old. More thorough sites, even Instagram's own, cover more important ground regarding instructions on hiding, blocking, deleting, reporting, and flagging inappropriate accounts, photos, and followers.
But what I've noticed is lacking from these conversations is the why of Instagram.
Observe the average teen on Instagram and you notice that the majority of their time spent on the app are minutes - scratch that - hours of consuming content. What they absorb are photos and videos of a few friends, hundreds of acquaintances and a steady diet of celebrity influence. Instagram is a social platform - tiny square soapboxes of influence that with each follow and like you empower the personality behind the post. Each user is sharing a way of life, priorities to pursue, and photogenic propaganda based on their own interests and values. To whom and by what content is as varied as the users. Understood this way, it is more clearly realized that Instagram has enormous potential to have both favorable and detrimental applications and consequences for your child.
On followers -
Let's say your teen's desire to be on Instagram starts with wanting to stay in touch with their friends. They post photos of shared experiences, fashion inspiration, accomplishments achieved through individual pursuits, et cetera. The likes each photo receives is affirmation that others see and approve and have joined in a wider acknowledgement of the individual or experience, and in the very rare occasion, the deeper thoughts shared beneath the post. Then other kids they've seen around school or the community or a cousin of a friend of your best friend's sister begin to beg for access and the right to exercise their opinion on your public offering. I follow you so now follow me. A quid pro quo of social media - I affirm you so therefore you must do the same. You let so and so in on details of your life and you must now allow the same for me. The peer pressure once experienced on a finite level based on actual in person interaction has been expanded to include familiar faces that are nonetheless complete strangers. This then becomes a playground rife with possibilities for false affirmation and cyber criticism that lays a flimsy foundation of security and confidence in your developing teen.
Helpful tips on this: Profile set to Private. All followers must be approved by your child. Followers who have used their privilege in a negative way can be blocked from further access. Remove any details in your visible profile bio that give away specifics about your location or person. No one has a right to your platform. Follow for follow is not a right. Approval to follow is a privilege.
On following -
Parents shouldn't assume their tweens are thoughtful and discerning individuals who can innately interpret the blurring lines of appropriate social behavior when the acceptable norms are evolving each day through the hundreds of photos that pass through their eyes and embed into their conscience. Nor should it be assumed that the peers, pop stars, gifted athletes, and cultural icons they follow have earned the privilege to speak into your child's life by merit of maturity rather than by simple ease of access or quantifiable star power. Through Instagram, your tween has access to any and every opinion out there and most will accepted as fact without regard to the origin. Who/what they consume bestows the honor of access to their hearts and minds for the purpose of persuasion and influence. Ideas of success, beauty, relationships, entertainment, moral relativism, politics, and so much more are molding your child through the squares they follow. Bad company corrupts good character. Choose who to follow or unfollow based on expressed character.
Helpful tips on this: Limit the number of influencers your child follows. We have provided our teens with a set number of peers they can follow (this helps them to prioritize who is the best and safest audience for their platform) and a much smaller number of inspirational role models (spend some time with your teen understanding the perceived value/contribuiton of each person/brand).
On posting -
The teenagers under my roof understand that permission to be on Instagram is a privilege that comes with responsibility. What they post contributes to their persona. Respect yourself. Respect others. Share your life and likes and let these intentional windows into who you are speak for what you stand for and the character you possess and are always pursuing. Every post doesn't have to be some deep epiphany about the cosmos or aspirational nugget or artistic expression. But nor should it be a constant thread of Rate my Beauty from 1 to 10. Man Lust Monday. Throwback Gossip Thursday. ShowMoreSkinSaturday. LifeSucks.Still. And please, tweens, not another dark bathroom selfie with your flash reflected in the mirror.
On responsibility -
Much has been written on how to flag, report, and block nudity, bestiality (yes, it is easily and accidentally stumbled upon, assure researchers), bullying, pornography (ninth graders in our community were just found guilty of possessing and sharing a classmate's nude selfie), hate speech, and all manner of inappropriate/offensive material so educate your teen on how to do this. But also help them to be aware of the conversations of a thousand words their friends are sharing in one photo. Don't be idle consumers of expressed pain and depression and self-harm and abuse. Reach out. Offer support. Encourage them to seek help. Alert the authorities if necessary. You have been given the privilege of access - do not let silence become your social norm.
On Search and hashtags -
The search option (looks like a microscope) is made available at the bottom of their Instagram's curated feed. The window that opens when you choose the search icon often displays images that are similar to what they or their followers/following have liked. Images could contain content that your teen would not have chosen and yet the exposure has already occurred. Partially nude and offensive content can readily be found here. It's a no go for my young teens. Hashtags (#) are tools for grouping like images together. You could have a string of photos under #joessummeratcamp that, when clicked on, display all the photos you took and tagged while at summer camp. A useful personal organization tool. Clinking on a random link of #anydoubleinnuendo - again, potential unintended exposure. Either have your teen proceed with caution or ask them not to engage at all.
On growing intentional platforms -
Your teen may be mature enough to want to go beyond sharing their platform with friends. They may have a message or passion or desire to raise the volume and sphere of their influence. With your permission and support, you can help them grow their reach. There is an option to turn off commenting for each post if you fear that unfiltered public opinion would easily demotivated or crush your teen's spirit. Private messaging can be used for those extra motivated to communicate with your teen and can be used or ignored at will. Instagram provides a potent means of empowering our young people and those merits can be utilized while still providing a safe place for your teen.
On time -
Parents overwhelmingly have the best intentions in raising their kids. And yet, in the case of social media, research on the psychology and impact social media has on our lives is only beginning to emerge with any solid evidence. What we do now from traditional experience is that we are what we eat. What goes in, must come out. Everything in moderation. Social media shouldn't be the first thing they consume in the morning nor the last image on their mind before bed. To help our family enjoy technology within reasonable parameters, we use Circle - a device that allows "families to manage content and time over all devices". Time and access are monitored for each individual from mom and dad's smartphone.
I wrote this post after having multiple conversations with friends whose kids are already on Instagram or who have forbidden access to Instagram because they didn't feel they were well enough informed to know the in and outs of the platform. While certainly not a comprehensive perspective, I wanted to offer one that looks beyond the surface concerns and values of this medium. Most importantly, know your child. All the restrictions in the world aren't enough to keep your teen safe. They will either find a way around them or withdraw from parents who they perceive are out of touch with them and their reality.