The answer is “NO.” Thanks for asking. End of article.
What? You want actual facts, proof, and detailed testing. (Sigh.) Okay, you talked us into it 😉
For those not in the know, Instagram is primarily a mobile phone application that lets users take, edit, and share photos and short video clips. It’s super popular among tweens and teens because it combines sharing and commenting, and lets users apply artistic filters for extra flair. If you have a high-schooler or even a middle-schooler, check her phone. She has Instagram.
“Selfies,” often silly or provocative self-portraits taken at arm’s length with a smartphone, are prominent with adolescents on Instagram. The app builds on this trend by encouraging “rate us” posts and beauty contests. Teens, most frequently girls, post pictures of themselves, measuring “success” and popularity through the number of likes or positive comments received. Not only is this a recipe for an unhealthy body image and low self-esteem, but the online “approval” concept can have a snowball effect by encouraging teens to take progressively more provocative photos for greater online attention, pushing them further and further outside of their normal comfort zones.
Instagram has clear policies about what’s allowed, its staff scans for offensive and inappropriate material, and the app itself supplies users with links to report abuse. However, Instagram is setup as a real-time sharing platform in a world that hasn’t invented instantaneous monitoring and removal of inappropriate content. The consequence of instant sharing is that controlling distribution and viral popularity is impossible…
As an example, one child can share a photo with 20 others, then each of those kids can share the pic with 20 more (potentially across several new forms of social media), and so on ad infinitum. Because this sharing is so rapid and exponential, much like a virus, thousands of people can have the image in a matter of minutes.
Those photos of underage Wake County students will never be completely erased, since viewers and followers could have copied and saved the pics to their phones and elsewhere. Right now, those photos are probably on someone’s smartphone or computer. They will always be out there somewhere, and if that doesn’t give you a parenting chill down your spine, we don’t know what will.
To gain a more comprehensive understanding of Instagram, we decided to spend some time with it. When first installed on our phone, we received a warning for all the things we were going to let the app do and have access to. Most likely you child isn’t going to read this carefully (or adjust the app’s default settings), even though a couple of them are very important.
Photos shared on Instagram are publicly visible by default. Unless the privacy settings are changed, strangers lurking can find your child’s photos. Not to be an alarmist, but there are communities dedicated to posting pics of young girls in sexually suggestive poses. To make things worse, the precise location of where your child’s photos were taken (i.e. your house) can be accessed unless the proper settings have been selected. (Luckily, this feature isn’t activated by default.) And when your teen includes hashtags (#’s) with her postings, photos become even more visible to communities beyond her private followers.
Instagram’s “Explore” feature lets you check out random pics of what’s out there in cyberspace. Pages came up in batches of 18 photo/video icons, all of which could be clicked on for a larger, more detailed view. The first 3 pages pulled up were mostly harmless, with a few major exception involving a racial slur, a sexual reference, and 2 objectifying photos. While it should be noted that Instagram is rated “for kids 13 and up,” there is no real way of blocking under-age users and its parent company, Facebook, has been pushing for even looser restrictions. Based on our time in the Explore section, we found this rating to be relatively accurate and the content to be about on par with a PG-13 movie (which can include violence, brief nudity, sensuality, language, adult activities, etc.)
But the “Search Tags” section was an entirely different story. This is where curious children looking for inappropriate content are definitely going to find trouble. While obviously inappropriate search terms are blocked, it wasn’t difficult to use synonyms as a workaround. In other words, a good vocabulary will be your child’s enemy. Even with innocent hashtag searches, you’ll eventually land on inappropriate content. We were genuinely shocked at the imagery found, much of which was purposefully blurring the line of what would be considered adult material.
When clicking on “Report Inappropriate Content,” the categories broke down as such—
• I Don’t Like This Photo (you can supposedly block accounts or certain pictures you don’t want to see)
• This Photo is Spam or a Scam
• This Photo Puts People at Risk (includes Self-Harm, Harassment or Bullying, and Drug Use sub-categories)
• This Photo Shouldn’t Be on Instagram (which breaks down into sub-categories of Nudity or Pornography, Graphic Violence, Hate Speech or Symbol, or an Intellectual Property Violation).
We found it hard to believe with all of the loopholes and inappropriate content littered on Instagram, that an Intellectual Property Violation was the 4th best option they could come up with! Even though the Instagram Terms of Service specify that users shouldn’t post partially nude or sexually suggestive photos (which obviously isn’t enforced well enough), it doesn’t address swearing at all. During our time with this app, all manner of swear words were present and accounted for, including several F-bomb photos and videos. Typing in #swearing returned a lot of middle finger pics and even a video of a mom encouraging her 4-year-old to repeat a long string of curse words. Cute, right?
Although we’re picking on Instagram, it’s not necessarily the most extreme app out there. You should really be monitoring ALL of the “fun stuff” happening on your children’s phones (and computers). There are too many social media platforms out there to name and something popular today like WhatsApp may not be the cool thing next week. Don’t assume your tween is only on Facebook talking to grandma. She’s communicating with her “real” friends and peers elsewhere, away from your prying parental eyes. And for mainstays like Twitter, know that if your child doesn’t want you to see his posts, he can simply start a new account and not tell you about it. Overall, teens and tweens gravitate towards visual phone apps that provide instant sharing and the illusion of privacy, and there are a few other popular platforms with strong teen followings that you should be aware of. Vine for example is a place to post short video clips and has a reputation for inappropriate sexual and drug content (the app is rated 17+ in the iTunes Store). Tumblr supposedly has a popular anorexia community glamorizing ultra thin girls and Pheed provides the questionable platform of letting users charge money for access to their live-stream channel. (We’ll let you do the math on that one.) One other app that should be on your radar is Snapchat. The concept here is that users can send photos and videos that self-delete seconds after they’ve been received. As a result, this has become a common way for teens to send sexy or naked photos. And even if it’s not being used for sexting, this app promotes the inaccurate idea that your kids can send temporary images that will be permanently deleted. (But surely everyone has heard of a little something called a screenshot.) Because social media is constantly emerging and evolving, even places like the benevolent Pinterest, known for attracting crafty moms looking for recipes and decorating tips, now has its share of porn. If it makes you feel any better, your child is almost certainly not active on ALL of these social networks… But which ones they are a part of and how they’re using them is YOUR responsibility.
“So what’s a parent to do?” Glad you asked. Educating your children on social media safety is your starting point. In particular, talk about keeping social communications limited to friends, not open to the general public. You’ll also want to discuss how images and conversations can quickly spread online and in social media, and the consequences that such massive exposure can bring. It’s also paramount for your child to understand that the distribution of nude photos of minors (anyone under 18) is illegal. And let us not forget that while it’s critical to take precautions so that questionable photos don’t go public, it’s also important to address why these photos would be taken in the first place, and how that ties into your family’s values and morals.
As a parent, if you don’t know what risks are associated with a particular app, then your child shouldn’t be using it. If this means you need to become social media savvy yourself, then it’s time to do your homework. There are plenty of websites out there that give you the lowdown on which social media sites and apps are age appropriate for your child. Make an official list of which apps you’ll allow your child to use. You need to know your stuff so you can competently talk to your kids about making smart and safe choices on their phones and online.
If you’ve already been left behind and have no idea what your child is up to in social media, we give you permission to snoop. You need to know what your kids are getting into, so if this means thoroughly reviewing everything on their phones, so be it. In our opinion, children should be given the privilege of social media access only with the understanding that there is no “right to privacy” from their parents.
For the un-indoctrinated that still have young children without smartphones, wait as long as you can. It’s much harder to take them away than to not give them in the first place. For those who already have kids with a phone… (Are you sitting down? Good, because you’re not going to like this)… TAKE IT AWAY. “Blasphemy!” you say? Perhaps to your child, but you should really ask yourself if your tween can function without a phone. If your child’s schedule involves going to school, coming home, waking up, and repeating, then the answer is most likely “yes.” Does your child need a phone for extracurricular activities because her pickup times can be erratic, or is having a smartphone just a fashion statement or a social norm? Do they genuinely need it for learning, or is that a flimsy excuse you’re hiding behind? Taking away your child’s phone may seem like a radical idea but several studies have shown all kinds of negative correlations associated with increased social media use.
To quote a spidery superhero and his uncle, “With great power comes great responsibility.” But by definition, kids are… well… immature and often irresponsible. So putting the power of social media into their hands can be dangerous. That doesn’t mean you have a “bad” kid, just a “human” one. Because their brains aren’t fully developed yet (especially the common sense part), minors are simply not at an age where they’re fully aware of the consequences of their actions. Couple this with the instant nature of current technology, and you can understand how kids today aren’t even given the chance to properly think things through before impulsively firing a photo off into the world. (Remember the time it used to take just to get traditional camera film developed and printed?)
For those No Wimpy Parents willing to make the gigantic step of removing phones, you get a cookie! (Seriously, email us your address, and we’ll send you a cookie.)
For those parents with special circumstances or older children (we’re talking about HIGH school, NOT MIDDLE), here’s Plan B—Get your kid a DUMB-phone. That’s right, the one in the store that just CALLS and TEXTS—something that literally can’t run apps. But even DUMB-phones still have a camera function which could cause photo-texting problems. So you may also want to consider disabling this feature.
After reading all of this, if you’re still not willing to make any changes, then you have to send US a cookie. (Sorry, those are the rules.) But seriously, our hope is that we’ve at least made you aware of what’s going on out in the world of social media. If you’re going to allow your child to use Instagram in particular, please change the privacy settings in the application by going to Edit Profile: Posts are Private. Also select the Photo Map and make sure the app is NOT revealing the location of where photos are taken.
We live in a dizzying age where cool new apps are instantly consumed and constantly replaced by our kids. And frankly, it’s hard to keep up. At this point in time, we strongly feel as if our kids are being used as guinea pigs to test and work out the kinks of this new technology. And that’s not a position in which we want them to be. At the end of the day, you have to ask yourself “Is having our tween take pictures of herself, adding cool filter effects, and sharing with her friends (and followers) worth the risks that come along with it?” …And that’s not a rhetorical question. You have to make a conscious decision to answer it and consistently enforce as needed