It’s about time that I confessed to all of you that I let M join Instagram. And I feel like it’s a confession because it’s one of those slightly questionable parenting decisions that I made thinking, “Gosh, I hope that this is the right thing to do.” First of all, M just turned 11 and technically Instagram is for ages 13 and up. Which is why I’m not linking directly to Instagram, because I’d like her to continue to fly under the radar. Second, if you read various guides to whether or not kids should use Instagram, most of them say no, no, no. Like Yoursphere or SociallyActive. Which is why I didn’t blog about it when I was pondering what to do or in the first couple of weeks after she’d joined. I was feeling vulnerable. But I’m feeling better now, so I’m prepared to give you my Secret Parenting Insiders’ Report.
When M first asked if she could use Instagram about three and a half months ago, I’d been expecting it. You know there’s that “All the kids are doing it” adolescent whine? Well, literally almost all of her friends were on Instagram already. I knew this because kids and mothers had talked about it, and one of the moms showed me her daughter’s Instagram account and some of the chatter back and forth among the various kids. If you’re not big into social media (besides this blog, of course!), all you need to know is that users on Instagram post photos with comments, and other users can respond to those comments. Sometimes the photos are personal photos, sometimes they’re reposting photos or drawings or graphic representations of some limited text (ie. “Keep Calm and Do Whatever”). Actually, almost all of her friends have cell phones already, too. Instagram (and the messaging app Kik) are two ways that she can communicate via her iPod without a cell phone. I’m not sure if all of these kids have phones because most of them have older siblings or because her little crowd tends to be (excuse me while I choke back bile a teensy bit) “popular,” or if I’m just hopelessly behind, but that’s the way it is. So, anyway, I’d seen this coming.
Still, when she requested an Instagram account, I told her that “we’d” have to think of it. “We” is in quotes here because while we present a united front, this is the type of parenting decision that involves Cute W saying, “I don’t know, what do you think?” and then me presenting a 20-minute mini-lecture based on my research, gleaned hearsay, and analysis of how the proposed activities line up with our personal parenting anxieties and goals, followed by my suggested decision and rules for implementation. Then Cute W says, “Sounds good. You rock, babe.” And I agree with him on that point.
I went into a little flurry of activity. I chatted up a mom or two, read a bunch of websites which scared me to death (I ended up making M read this story from HighTechDad), and then I joined Instagram myself to see what it was like. At first I thought that I’d create a generic and anonymous account to follow M, but I soon figured out that this wasn’t feasible. Basically, I had no interest in actually doing Instagram myself and M had no interest in anyone knowing that the only way her mother would approve her use of Instagram was if she were spying on her the whole time. So we figured out a better way.
I ended up going with the following rules:
- M is not allowed to use her full name (so wackos couldn’t find her) or her correct age (so she wouldn’t be kicked off)
- M has to keep “private,” which means that only pre-approved people can follow her
- M can only approve people she knows in the real world
- M has the geo-location thing switched to “off”
- M must not post any words or pictures that she would not feel comfortable with everyone in the world seeing and knowing came from her, including all grandparents and favorite teachers
- M will knock off the iPod in the evening if and when I say to knock it off
- I will be logged in as M on my own phone, so I can see her pictures and comments as well as the pictures and comments of the kids she’s following
Phew! It looks like a lot when I have them all listed out, but she was fine with it. Of course she was: that was how she’d get to do Instagram.
She seemed mildly obsessed at the beginning, but after three and a half months, M has only actually posted 11 photos. It turns out that she’s more of a voyeur than a poster. Which I love. She also thinks that “selfies” are stupid. Which is awesome.
Because, let me tell you, I was appalled at some of the pictures and comments that I saw on Instagram. So I thought I’d give you a little warning about the yuckiness that I’ve seen. Just in case your kid asks you if (s)he can join Instagram. Most of what I’ve seen had been posted by then-5th graders.
- Kids supplying their photo, first and last name, and town in the basic profile portion that’s available to all users
- Really trashy-looking self-portraits. Like, a 5th-grade girl wearing a camisole shirt and lipstick and pouting into the camera in the bathroom in what she thinks is a cute selfie (perhaps) but what looks to an adult like a still from some basement-produced child pornography. Really alarming.
- Teenagers who have, like, a million followers. Which just sort of freaks me out. Like, I wonder if their parents know? Gosh, I hope so.
- Games that seem designed to make people feel like crap. One common one is an image that has a list like: “A+ = Besties! I’d die for you! / A = One of my best friends, love ya! . . down to C = You’re alright . . . and then all the way down to F = You suck.” Then the person who posts it says, “Like for your grade!” and then a whole bunch of people “like” the image and they are each told, publicly and in no uncertain terms, exactly where they rank in comparison to all the other friends. Another common one is that a person will make a grid of four images, each a portrait of a different friend, then they ask their followers to vote on who should stay or be eliminated, Survivor-style, until the presumably coolest person wins the game.
- Graphic photos from news events. For example, a 5th-grade friend passed along a collage of photos from the Boston Marathon that I was just so thankful was very teensy, because I knew what they looked like full-sized and they were not images that I would foist upon anyone, grown-up or not.
- Teasing, some of it very mean, and other instances that were jokey but still not a great idea. This prompted a conversation with M about how typing something in is not the same as joking in person, because the tone isn’t there.
Okay, so do I totally regret okaying Instagram? No. I think that if M were a sensitive soul who cared deeply about what her friends thought, the irritating games and comments would be the most potentially harmful Instagram stuff, and I’d be anti-Instagram for her. Or if M were posting tons of images, I might regret allowing it. But luckily she seems pretty laid back about it all, and she rolls her eyes over the drama. So she’s doing alright.
Meanwhile I feel like I’m benefiting enormously because I’m like a fly on the wall, observing the kids interacting. I get a little insight into M’s world that I wouldn’t have, otherwise. And a little insight into M as well. For example, there are two girls from M’s school who don’t seem particularly kind, and they were bleeping as not-my-favorites on the mom radar, but I didn’t really have anything to back up the mom-intuition. So when I saw that their Instagram accounts included trashy selfies, bad language, and plenty of insults, I felt like I had confirmed a hypothesis. I felt a little better that at least I was keeping an eye on them and could chat with M about a couple of the most flagrantly awful posts in what I hoped was an effective but mild tone. Weeks and weeks later, a mom friend was talking about a particularly egregious post that one of the girls had written. I went back to check, because somehow I’d missed it. It turns out that M had decided to “unfollow” both girls. One was still following her, and the other had apparently gotten angry and confronted M about it in person, then “unfollowed” M in a huff. To which M said, “Whatever.” So, yay for M. I felt pretty happy about that. Of course then we ended up chatting about which of her followers she hadn’t reciprocated by following back. I agreed with her rejection of a few boys (“They’re just too annoying”), was surprised about a soccer friend (“[eyeroll] She’s just always posting selfies”), and argued for a girl who’s several rungs down the social ladder (“Mom, she’s fine. Look, she’s got 20-something followers”)–I’m still working on that one.
Anyway, it’s interesting. So my best suggestion is that if you do decide to let someone use Instagram, log in with your own phone so that you can check up on them conveniently without them having to be reminded, constantly, that you’re checking up on them.