What Parents of Teens Should Know About Instagram

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What’s your teen really doing on Instagram? (Photo: Stocksy)

If you have a teenager, chances are she has an Instagram account. A study conducted by the Pew Research Center found that 52 percent of teens (ages 13 to 17) say that Instagram is their favorite social networking site; another poll found that 76 percent favor it compared with Facebook (45 percent). Not familiar with the photo-sharing app? It’s time to get up to speed.

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Who’s on Instagram and what are they doing?

Users have to be at least 13 years old to have an account. But since it’s easy to fake their birth date and download the app (it’s free) via their parents’ App Store or Google Play accounts, don’t assume your tween isn’t using it. According to Rachel Simmons, co-founder of the nonprofit Girls Leadership Institute and author of Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, selfies are popular with all teens, but there’s a gender divide when it comes to other photos: boys tend to post sports images, while girls favor shots of friends, food, vacations, and pets. And just like most social media, she says, Instagram is mostly a girl thing.

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What’s there to worry about?

On Instagram, teens acquire an audience for their photos, and they usually want to impress them. “Especially with girls, relationships are a very powerful social currency,” Simmons tells Yahoo Parenting. “Instagram can be a way to trumpet who your friends are and a barometer for popularity and self-worth.” For example, if a girl posts a selfie and doesn’t get as many “likes” as she hoped for, she may feel self conscious about how she looks. And a comment on a photo can be interpreted as funny or sarcastic, depending on who reads it.

Kids can also be passive-aggressive, whether it’s posting a snapshot from a party that a friend wasn’t invited to, cropping her out of a group photo, or tagging everyone but her. No one has to mention the snubbed girl’s name, since everyone, including her, can see she’s been excluded. “Because Instagram is a visual platform, not a textual one, teens find more creative, indirect ways to antagonize people, which parents can’t always see,” says Simmons.

How can you protect your teen?

For middle schoolers who want to join, Simmons suggests downloading the app on your own phone, getting your kid’s login and password, and monitoring their activity from your own phone. “Tell your kid that Instagram is a privilege, not a right, and that he or she needs to show you they can behave, even when you’re not looking,” she says. Dealing with older teens is trickier. “If you’re too restrictive or over-their-shoulder,” high school kids will get around that by opening accounts under different names, says Simmons. “Talk to them about respecting others and how ‘likes’ don’t define self-worth. You have to be a supervisor, not a dictator.”

A few more tips: Make sure your kid’s account is set on “private mode,” which blocks the photo feed from everyone except handpicked followers. Also, restrict kids from posting the name of their school or other identifying info. And finally, have them switch off the Instagram Photo Map feature, which allows users to pinpoint the location where a picture was uploaded. It’s a cool tool that shows friends where you ate that awesome burger or trekked while on vacation, but it can put teens at risk for unwanted attention. 

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