Private Instagram Account for Kids?

A cartoon of kids looking at Instagram site but also checking their age as they might be too young to be online. From TechCrunch.
Private Instagram Account for Kids? Image: Bryce Durbin, Techcrunch- 2019

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I read that Instagram might allow kids under age 13 to get online, providing their accounts are private. My ten year old is asking me to set up an account for him like this, and I am undecided. He is a good student and helps me a lot with my other kids who are too young to be online. Alison, Daly City

Dear Alison: Ten year old boys like to play video games on consoles and big monitors and they can’t do that privately, out of site. We might learn from them how to jump into social media. As a parent you need to see literally what is going on. You may not enjoy the warfare in some of those video games or the sound blasts from Reels but at least you will be present.

If you let you ten year old set up this Instagram account it has the advantage, as I have written earlier, of being a “provisional account.” Think of it like a learner’s permit for young drivers . You will have access to his postings and can see what is going on. The downside is that it will also be a walled garden. Other young friends that he shares with will presumably have private accounts too. You, the parent will not necessarily have access to these, since they are locked down. Importantly, you cannot assume that other parents will be as conscientious as you, and provide regular oversight of their tweens’ posts.

Re:Repost

I have a further issue with private accounts as they “violate” a principle of social media, which is to share things as community. Let’s say that your son posts an unflattering picture of a girl in his classroom. You may casually dismiss it, but the photo is tagged and another classmate innocently reposts this photo from your son’s “private” site. Pretty soon that disturbing or embarrassing picture, with the girl’s name, is in circulation. She may have to answer to it for some time to come. It’s no wonder that teens prefer Snapchat, where the posts and photos disappeared every 24 hours. Until, read my earlier post they did not. It’s hard to imagine a social media site that does not have leaky edges. The official Instagram site says that privacy protects young people.

For what it’s worth, a contemporary parent has a new entry in their job description: they must find healthy ways to get kids on the road to social media and help them develop mental muscles to think through issues before they post. It’s like that provisional year when you and your teen have a learner’s license to drive together; you model good behavior and they internalize the rules of the road.

Make it ‘All IN’

Perhaps you have family reunions, a hobby, nature pictures, or a pet that can become your content vehicle for a public account and substitute for the “private” one. Your son gets the experience of taking pictures for it, scanning responses, and feeling part of this extended group. You meanwhile are able to look over his shoulder, so to speak, and share parental wisdom and advice, particularly when the content seems lewd or off-color. You cannot permanently shield him from inappropriate content on the Internet, but you can, at this young age, provide some lessons and model good behavior. By the way, it’s not just about content. It’s also about the time spent, and how it subtracts from alternative activities he could do.

Finally, I would recommend that you all engage in this family account on a laptop or desk computer, so that it remains a public and shared experience. Viewing it on the phone elevates it to a private one-on-one experience.

Is TikTok Bad for Kids?

An ad for a Dance Camp called "TikTok Dance Party." Targeted to young girls.
After the Dance Party, is TikTok bad for kids?

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Is TikTok bad for kids and specifically for a girl entering the fifth grade? My step-daughter spent a week in dance camp. Now she is excited to share her videos when school begins. She says she wants to keep making them and aims to be a TikTok influencer this Fall. I love this little girl, but she seems so precocious. I never shared this much! Jessica, Los Angeles

Dear Jessica,

Thanks for the timely question as school begins. I hope that Dance Camp also educated their young students on social media. It’s hard to live in Los Angeles, the city of The Hype House without feeling a TikTok presence. 

Commonsense Media has a quick catch up for parents with children under age 13. Thirteen is the site’s official sign up age but there are recommendations if your child is younger and online. I am personally on uncharted territory when it comes to this platform, and the issues change every time I check in on it.

It used to be that getting Pokemon cards and Michael Jordan athletic shoes helped fifth graders gain popularity.  Now it’s social media and TikTok.. Kids look at the videos on their lunch breaks,  at recess, and after school. Of course, that only encourages young kids to get smartphones, and pushes down the age level (see my post on the provisional phone). Personally, I would try to find an elementary school that does not allow phones on campus.

But, with only a week or two before school opens, what should you do? Here are a couple of “provisional phone” lessons to talk over at home:

First, take inventory of the activities that are squeezed out because of  her time spent on TikTok. This inventory should be explicit- how many minutes is she spending  on TikTok in lieu of being outdoors, meeting friends in person,  summer reading, and soon, doing school work? TikTok videos are only 15 seconds in length, but they take gobs of time to rehearse and edit.

As you complete the inventory ask  if TikTok is compromising her ability to “be still.”  Children need to discover the importance of just being present, of being here. Some associate this with the ability to be bored, but it’s not quite the same. We do not know at what age we develop that capacity, but it needs to be nurtured before tweens get phones. It does not bode well for your step-daughter’s development if the smartphone robs her ability to just sit and “Be”.

There are some procedural questions I would also explore with her. Does anyone know how the TikTok algorithm  rewards talent and creates a star (according to the The Hollywood Reporter- it’s a not). Is this Chinese owned app “safe” when it comes to privacy and sharing? (not, according to the Indian government and issues raised by MIT computer scientists in 2020). And is posting TikTok images of friends and strangers ethical if you don’t have their explicit approval? 

And importantly, prepare your tween for social disappointment. Her videos from dance camp may be smashing, but there is lots of other content. For example, how is she going to handle it if she goes online and learns from her friends’ posts that she was not invited to a classmates’ sleep-over party or or big birthday bash? 

According to Moms who follow their tweens on to TikTok, this experience is corrosive  to mental health. They think it is creating a generation of pre-teens and tweens with “FOMO” that no adult could emotionally handle. Anxiety, social pressure, and insecurity are amplified.

Fortunately, you can monitor and supervise your step-daughter’s TikTok account today since she is only in fifth grade. But, she may shut you out by tenth grade.  By that point, her  online postings will be peer to peer. What we can glean about social media and teens (and this may change in five years) is that the content is hyper-focused on body image and appearance. And, the need for digital validation becomes addictive. 

If your step-daughter wants to be an astronaut/ a physician/ or a social media star- expose her to real people and real activities. And, if being a rising star on social media and TikTok remain on her list, then for every hour on TikTok, make an equal offsetting hour in the dance studio. In a couple of years you will not be able to monitor your child’s social media account and supervise what she posts. So, make this time precious, and use it offline.

Can Emojis Make Me Seem Empathetic?

Will an emoji improve my relationship? Or spice it up?!

A banner ad that says pump up your sexting with emojis. It shows lips, a peach, and eggplant as possible emojis.
Will emojis make me seem empathetic (or more?) Credit: emojiguide.com

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Can emojis make me seem more empathetic? My girlfriend says I lack empathy and while I don’t think that is true, I see that I could easily sprinkle some emojis in my correspondence to her. I am not sure why she is asking me this but should I add some happy faces? It’s an easy fix!  Ryan, Sacramento

Dear Ryan:  Empathy is the buzz word these days, and it’s good to seek it wherever we can. Personally, the only emoji I wish for a big human ear with an X across it. This ‘EarX’ emoji would replace the need to shout on Zoom, “You are on Mute.”

But, to be serious, learned linguists and psychologists do think that emojis can improve written communications. Emojis can embed tone and intention and help substitute for the non-verbal cues and gestures for face-to-face communications. As you can see in the image, they can also do a lot more! But stay dubious, for there are lots of foibles and miscommunications in face-to-face meet ups too.

from the i-mode team:

Emojis were conceived alongside the Internet to clarify the written word, and  some would say, fill the empathy gap.  A Japanese  telecom team, assigned to a project called i-mode, observed that email recipients could not judge the context and intentions (for a fuller breakdown read this).  Team member Shigeta Kurita was graphically inspired  by manga and kanji. But, recall that the yellow smiley face, with two dots for eyes and a wide grin, had already become an universal symbol.

That was when Windows 95 launched. Since then emojis continue to sprout like a new language. Social media firms have been intent on marrying the emoji to convey emotion and empathy, just like you mentioned. Facebook experimented with them (circa 2012) because they hoped that users would be less angry and more compliant when friends asked them to remove photos or messages. Says a UCBerkeley psychology  professor advising Facebook’s emoticon team, ” The idea was to get people to be kinder and more polite to make for more compassionate communication.” 

A Verbal Shortcut

As emojis become an everyday auxiliary, my opinion is that we use them less for emotive means and more for speed. We add emojis to our texts and chat as they shorten the number of words to input. Emojis are a meta-language well suited for phones:  brevity counts and the emoji is a verbal shortcut. 

There seems little harm as you say in “sprinkling some emojis” through your text or chat to the girlfriend, but before you start using them remember that there is no emoji standard. Users in different countries and different cultures make different assumptions on their motivation and meaning. Using an emoji might not create that shared harmony you seek.

Furthermore, human empathy is endless, but emoji is not. In 2019 there were 2,823 symbols encoded by Unicode. If you are serious about this relationship, then ask her to comment on the emojis you choose, and specifically ask how they make her feel. Better yet, do this in person, not over chat or text! BTW, sending  fresh flowers, or cards or food always outshines emojis. 😀 😃 😄