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Ryan is a good kid. He gets great grades, he plays travel lacrosse, and he’s well-liked. So Jennifer and her husband didn’t see any reason why their sixth-grade son couldn’t have an Instagram account. Until Ryan posted a photo of himself flashing an empty beer bottle that his father had just drank. “My husband saw the photo pop up on Ryan’s account and was up the stairs in seconds, demanding that he take it down,” Jennifer, who grounded Ryan for the stunt, tells Yahoo Parenting. “I don’t think my son realized how bad his picture looked. He was trying to be funny, but he’s in sixth grade! Even if he was simply posing, that picture was inappropriate.”
With the popular photo-sharing site Instagram, it’s easy for parents to be lulled into a false sense of security. Unlike Facebook or Twitter, the site is only for posting pictures and with the 13+ age requirement and privacy feature, it seems like a benign site for tweens and teens. How much trouble could they stir up? Turns out, just as much as they can anywhere else.
Fran Walfish, PsyD, a Los Angles based child psychologist and author of The Self-Aware Parent, says parents should be wary of using age as a way to measure whether their kid is ready for a social media account. “First, the child needs to demonstrate that they’re responsible by respecting curfews, following bedtimes, and family rules and values,” Walfish tells Yahoo Parenting. “One son may be ready at 12-years-old, but his brother might not be ready till he’s 16. Independence needs to be earned, not given.”
Often times, it’s not your own teen that’s cause for concern — it’s someone else’s kid. Meghan Koster couldn’t figure out why her daughter Delaney suddenly became so anxious about whether her panty line was visible through her jeans. Finally, Delaney confessed that she was worried someone would snap a photo and post it on Instagram. “I don’t think I would have survived middle school if sites like this existed back then,” Koster tells Yahoo Parenting. She still finds Instagram more appropriate than social media sites such as ask.fm, which allows users to post anonymously, often with mean-spirited or X-rated comments. (Koster had previously banned Delaney from ask.fm, then discovered her daughter had secretly rejoined under another name.) “I tell everyone to check their kid’s phone constantly. Some parents say, ‘Oh, they’d kill me,’” says Koster. “But I say, ‘You pay for that phone. You just let them borrow it. You have to stay on top of them.’”
Once teens are online, Walfish says monitoring their accounts and behavior is key. “Once something is posted — be it a nasty comment or a sexy selfie — it takes on a life of its own,” she says. “Parents should keep the lines of communication open so kids feel comfortable confiding what’s happening on there.”
Jamie, a former PTA president and mom-of-three, has always monitored her children’s online activity and was aware of everything they posted. Then, she got a call from a mom she barely knew. “She said, ‘My daughter really likes your son and she wanted me to tell you what kids are saying about him online. Kids are telling him to kill himself.’” The comments were made on ask.fm, which Jaime had never heard of. “I contacted the school immediately,” she said. “Kids don’t talk and if you have a self-conscious child, a post like this could destroy them.”
That was the right move, according to Walfish. “Additionally, teach kids that when they see injustice, they should speak up,” she says. “Compassion and empathy doesn’t sell, but it’s important to learn.”
Unfortunately, scandal does sell—and on Instagram, it also produces likes. When 14-year-old Willow Smith, daughter of actors Will and Jada Pinkett-Smith, posted a photo of herself wearing a vintage Jean Paul Gaultier shirt with a nude female body printed on the front, the media went crazy over Willow’s “topless” photo, which had racked up thousands of “likes.” It’s a good example of how Instagram does have a non-nudity clause, but kids can still get away with posting sexy shots.
And shockingly, some kids are (literally) paying for attention on social media. When Paula Pryor found a mysterious $700 charge on her credit card, the last thing she suspected it to be was payment to a company that acquired “likes” on Instagram pictures. “My son Hayden thought it was only ten dollars, but it was ten dollars per ‘like’,” says Pryor, who was able to get the charge reversed because her son was underage (Not that he knows that—she’s making him pay her back every penny). “This is a kid with a lot of friends,” she says. “I don’t get why they all become so obsessed with getting their photos noticed and liked.”
Depending on how severe the online behavior is, Walfish recommends a social media fast. “Teens think they’re invincible,” she says. “But they have to remember—once something is up online, it’s there forever.”