Instagram is popular among teens, which comes as no surprise. They love to take and share gagillions of photos and videos with their friends and the world. Photos have become a kind of currency among adolescents, and he who has the most “likes” or “follows” swiftly moves up the social food chain. Businesses, causes, and plenty of moms and dads alike all have accounts too.
But what about children — the “under 13″ crowd? Do they belong in Instagram land? Two words: NO WAY.
Although the age requirement for the app is LEGALLY 13 (see this explanation of the COPPA law), there is nothing to verify this age when activating a new account. In fact, there is no mention of the age restriction whatsoever in the set up, which I completed in under a minute for a dummy account I created for testing purposes. All you need is an email address or Facebook log in (I made up a fake email, and they didn’t verify it). Then I tapped the arrow to indicate I’d read the Terms of Service (and we all know EVERY kid will do that, right?) and I was in. What happened next served as an eerie kind of warning, sort of like the creepy music that starts before someone gets killed in a movie: the first person the app suggested I should follow was Kim Kardashian. Oh, great. **Also, please remember that when you allow your kid on social media before 13, you are giving precedent for a very dangerous pattern. Don’t let your kid’s first choice on social media be a LIE**
Once you’ve opened Instagram, you have unfettered and unrestricted access to millions upon millions of photos from users all over the planet, and more adult content than your child has ever had access to all in one place. Don’t believe me? Here are just a few of the things your child will now have the opportunity to learn about from complete strangers (in full-color HD video!) ONE CLICK AWAY:
Cutting / Self-harm
Drug & alcohol use
Creepos. Any child on Instagram has unregulated access to unhealthy adults who have serious boundaries issues or even criminal intentions. Even worse, these adults have access to them. Does the child have a public or private account? One parent of a 10-year-old user I talked to didn’t even know. The child himself may not even know, because there’s no step in the set up process to ask you which one you’d like to have. The default is public, and you have to go to settings to change that. Even if your child has a private account, that only protects his or her identity from any unapproved follower. It in no way keeps your child from searching and finding plenty of garbage in an instant. Perhaps the most disturbing feature on Instagram: Anyone **ANYONE** can direct message your kid, even if your kid has a private account. All a predator needs to do is find a post made by an public account that attracts kids (My Little Pony, Shopkins, etc.), and if your kid has liked or commented on that photo, their user name has now been published. Then the predator can DM every user name of those who commented or liked the photo and wait for a response. According to these experts who go after sex traffickers, the scenario might go something like this:
Stranger sends an identical direct message to 100 young girls: You’re so pretty He zeroes in on the girls who answer back: No I’m not
Just ask a law enforcement officer how many of their predator cases start with social media direct messaging. It ain’t pretty.
Location. Could a complete stranger see the locations of where your child snapped their photos, such as your home? If they click “Add Location” as they post it, and their profile remains set to public, yes. (Here’s how to undo that for those of legal age to use the app). Location and time information may also be automatically stored in any photo your child uploads, unless you have set your child’s phone to NOT store it ahead of time by turning of Location Services. When my brother started using Instagram for his business, I had to let him know that I could see his home location in his Instagram profile, since he had not disabled Location Services and had snapped some of his photos at home. He has young children, so he quickly figured out how to turn that off.
Active Status. Instagram now lets users who follow your kid know when he/she is online and using the app. Stalker alert! Can you see how much of a problem would be with kids who create public accounts and are followed by hundreds of strangers? This feature, of course can be turned off. Since kids don’t belong on Instagram, but some of you are parenting teens you’ve deemed mature enough to use the app, here’s how to turn it OFF.
Disappearing photos. Yep, it’s no longer just a Snapchat thing. Your kid can direct message photos and videos to anyone on Instagram and they will “disappear” (screenshots can still be taken by the end user, which should prompt a notification to your kid that it was copied, and the media may be able to be replayed, depending on the settings your kid uses). ALL THAT TO SAY, you certainly won’t be able to monitor anything that’s been sent or received as disappearing media. (And in case you didn’t know, very little of social media can be monitored as it is. Bark can send you reports on many accounts that have been legally opened for kids 13+, but not all of the social media features have been opened for them to monitor by the companies). Do you REALLY want your kids sending or receiving disappearing photos?? Potentially with strangers??
Hashtags. They’re a problem too, because people post porn in all kinds of innocent hashtags (#kitties, #Denver, etc.). So kids using the search feature to find something innocent can quite easily find a world of filth. Now you can follow hashtags in Instagram too, which causes issues for kids who have been tantalized by an accidental stumble upon porn. They can learn what innocent hashtags they can follow to look at porn, and unsuspecting parents who look at their hashtag search history would be none the wiser. More about hashtags here.
Part of my recent career included running social media for a non-profit, so I could go on and on about all the raunchy and disturbing things I’ve seen on Instagram that you don’t want your kid to see in their lifetime (I still report photos and users regularly!). The bottom line is this: Instagram does not have enough safety measures in place for kids to use it because it wasn’t made for kids. I highly doubt many 13-year-olds have the wisdom to navigate those rough waters successfully either. Heck, I’ve been known to hide my eyes a time or two myself! It’s impossible to “unsee” that kind of stuff.
If your kids have an account without your consent, you can get Instagram to shut it down.* However, since it’s so easy to lie about your email address, it’s just as easy for kids to simply create another profile. Actual names are not required. If you’re worried about your kids opening their own Instagram accounts without your knowledge, you can also set restrictions on the age-range of apps they are allowed to download to their devices. (I would suggest this as a basic digital parenting principle, no matter what.)
Also, it’s extremely important to talk to your kids about the dangers these kinds of apps present, and let them know that when you think they are mature enough to venture into that world (which won’t magically happen at 13), you will be willing to go on that journey with them. NO becomes NOT YET. I would encourage you to bring up this kind of conversation before your child ever owns a smart phone. Make it part of your regular family dialogue as soon as you can.
Remember, when it comes to parenting in this digital world, you don’t have to figure this all out on your own. We need each other, because we’re all in this together. We are fighting for the healthy futures of our kids!
*The actual “terms of service” on Instagram says this in regard to age: “The Service and its content are not directed at children under the age of 13 without parental consent. In the event that we learn that we have collected personal information from a child under age 13 without parental consent, we will delete that information as quickly as possible. If you believe that we might have any information from or about a child under 13, please contact us.”