Parental Advice for Instagram

On Instagram should your teen ‘Show Up’ or ‘Show Out’ ?

A headline (no pictures) from the Wall St. Journal that reads, "Facebook Knows Instagram is Toxic for Teen Girls."
Wall St. Journal reporting points to need for Parental Advice for Teens on Instagram

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Seeking some parental advice for Instagram. I have a 12 year old daughter and she tells me she is “of age” when she gets to her birthday in December to set up an Instagram account. But now I am worried because of all the news in the press about Instagram and teenage girls. I don’t plan to stop her from setting up the account, but are there things I should watch out for? I am concerned about comments she may get about her body image, since she has not lost her baby-fat.  Jewell, Reading

Dear Jewell: The press you are referring to is a Wall St. Journal investigation that ran in mid-September. There were a number of stories about Instagram’s parent company, Facebook. They are able to shield themselves from public scrutiny on vital issues like teens and mental health while internal data suggests that the site is “toxic” to young girls.

Teen mental health is a huge issue and I am not sure that anyone has the full data or complete picture. However, I have complained loudly, on my own Instagram site. You do not have to scroll for long or post the wrong hashtag, to end up on a page with a morass of half-naked girls. It reminds me of wandering through the ‘De Wallen’ district in Amsterdam  (NV) after dark.

Chances are a thirteen year old wants to be on Instagram for more innocent reasons. For teens, there are two distinct Instagrams.  First, there is the “local” need to be online, think of it as showing up. The second Instagram is showing out– and that is where parents need to be concerned. Unfortunately, showing up and showing out can quickly merge.

First: showing up. Thirteen year olds want to be part of a group. They share things, learn, and recreate with each other .So, now instead of endlessly talking on the phone, they use Instagram to trade stories and adventures. It’s a way to seem popular in school, to get recognized, and maybe be part of the in-crowd. It doesn’t always work this way- just as in real life, some kids get bullied and feel left out.

Since this is local, I would network with other parents, the school principal, the school board and the teachers – all of them to ensure that there are classes on digital literacy. Kids get sex-education classes in the fifth grade, right?  You mentioned that your daughter might get remarks about her weight – even more reason to arm yourself with information. Digital literacy would help to immunize her, so to speak, and make her aware that many Instagram images are photo-shopped and not real.

I am guessing that your daughter has her own smartphone. Since she is only twelve you should be monitoring her time on the phone. You can insist that she set up a public account on Instagram.  In that way, you don’t need to know her passwords, and it is all out in the open. But, some parents have a different opinion on this. My concern is that these kids are more likely to then set up hidden accounts that parents can’t access.

Hidden accounts point towards a different problem on Instagram-  what I call showing out. I doubt that artistic appreciation for the human form is driving all those images of half-naked girls.  

Not- it’s commerce of all sorts that encourage girls to post. For example, multiple advertisers on Instagram tout products for weight loss, body building, and self care. These ads speak loudly to teens, who seek identity and self- improvement. Meanwhile, many celebrities post this way too, and that encourages young people to copy them.

Many teens hope to grow up to be champions at video games (boys) or get paid to be an influencer on social media (girls and boys). So girls as young as thirteen may begin posting pictures to a large public (showing out) in the hopes they will get discovered, or they start on TikTok. It’s like old-fashioned modeling, call services, etc. But now there are so many girls with ‘skin in the game’.

As a parent, is it is important to keep tabs on whether your daughter is showing up or showing out. Are the content and hashtags she posts intended for a local, community group of viewers, or a more public view? This may change over time as you glance over her social media shoulder. You might recommend that, as a beginner, she post just two or three stories/images each week. If her posts are infrequent, she will learn to approach each one with greater thought and mindfulness.

Restrict Time on Video Games?

A cartoon of a little Asian child in front of a very large monitor with a game remote control in hand
Limit Time on Video Games? Image: debate.org

Dear Ms. Smartphone:  My cousins live in Asia and the government there has decided to restrict the time that kids can play video games. Now my grandparents are suggesting that it is a good idea for me and I should limit my time on video games like them. I live in the same household as my grandparents. I only play after I do my homework and on the weekends. Usually it is when I get together with kids from my school. I am in tenth grade.  Lucas, S. San Francisco

Dear Lucas: Apropos to your question, I read that the Chinese government said “video games are like opium for the mind.” It makes me curious. Was it a political agenda, research from mental health, or sheer hubris that led to this decree? We may never know. We do know that young boys spend a lot of time on video games and Pew Research reports that  four-in-ten boys ages 13 to 17 (41%) say they spend too much time playing video games, four times the share of girls who say the same (11%).

The Chinese ban is not new: China was one of the first countries to recognize the potential for addiction to the Internet, video games, and other digital media, and was the first country to formally classify Internet addiction as a clinical disorder. In 2019 kids were allowed 1.5 hours of gaming on weekdays. The new decree limits gaming to 3 hours per week, from 8p.m. to 9p.m. on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

The interesting issue is how the government will enforce it: one way might be at the router- might it disconnect after three hours of play? Young people will need to log in with their real names and will have limited opportunity to buy microtokens. ”Farmers,” the players who mine the games for in-game currency, will need to be over the age of 18!

To me, limiting time is a thoughtful concept, but it is parents and kids who should make this decision. You did not say how much time you currently play. Note that each hour you spend on video games is an hour that you forfeit doing something else. On a particularly day, that is not huge, but over many days- it grows to be an alarming number. During the recent Tokyo Olympics it was reported that those athletes spend about 10,000 hours at their sport before making it to an Olympic team. That’s just 3.5 hours a day over ten years!

Not So Good, Not So Bad

That said, many educators in the U.S. believe that video games have positive benefits: they help develop skills like hand-to-eye coordination, speedy reaction times, strategic thinking, and puzzle solving.  It is also an activity, a walled off space, where you socialize with friends.  It’s a social thing, particularly when it’s played on larger consoles with others in the room. In China, the norm might seem less sociable if the gaming takes place in arcades or alone on a mobile phone.


While young boys thrive on these games, there is a belief, held by a majority of adults in the U.S., that the amount of gun violence in video games contributes to a “great deal or a fair amount” of gun violence.  82% of people age 65 and older hold this opinion, and your grandparents might be in that age cohort! Their causal inference could be wrong. 

Play it WITH Grandpa!

Perhaps kids who are lonely and emotionally unhinged,  seek out video games. Was that the rationale in China to limit games? We don’t know. Officially, I have read there was concern about poor eyesight (myopia), college readiness, and protecting kids’ physical and mental health.  Be able to sidestep these concerns when you talk with your grandparents! 

That said, are there multi generational video games that you can make your grandparents take an interest in, or share an online language-tool?  One option is to show them how Roblox Studio works, and create a new game personalized with their input. You may be able to convince them that your programming skill and their creativity will be your ticket to engineering school.

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.