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.

Birth Announcements… Print or Internet?

Hello World! Do new families share this on the Internet or in print?

A baby announcement that shows an infant and the text "hello world"
Birth Announcements: Print or Internet?
photo credit: mumsgrapevine.com.au (2018)

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Am I out-of-date when it comes to birth announcements? I had a baby earlier this year, so I sent my friends and work-associates a small photo card with newborn vitals (weight, height, delivery date). My BFF is having a baby soon and says sending out these print cards is old-fashioned. She plans to post the baby picture by text and on the Internet (social media). She thinks it’s more personalized to reach out this way. Scarlet, San Francisco

Dear Scarlet:  First, congratulations to you and your friend. No matter how you announce this to the world, at the end of the day, parents rule and you must personally navigate these changing times of disclosure and sharing.

But, I rather agree with you, and would prefer that baby announcements be sent by mail, not by text or social media. And, I don’t think it’s out-of-date. When I searched on the web, there was a divide between those who still followed this practice, and those who found it arcane. 

Pinned

It’s fun to pin these print announcements to the refrigerator door and oogle at the newborn- they are a visual reminder of how precious life is. That is a moment lost by social media. There, pictures flash by and get our attention for five or six seconds. Occasionally, we upload them to a cloud shared with a jumble of unconnected photos. Not everyone will save your printed cards, but recall that they also have useful information:  babies weight, height, spelling of name, and, of course, a return address should they send a gift. 

You probably don’t care if people send a gift, but the natural response of many people is to do this – even if you post on social media. In that case, the gift givers will need your address, and- surprise of surprise- we are back in the business of sending and receiving things in the mail.

Organic losS

My major issue with posting on social media (e.g. Facebook, Instagram) is that we cannot be sure that your announcements will actually be seen. On Facebook, the average reach of an organic post hovers around 5.20%.  That means roughly one in every 19 fans sees the page’s non-promoted content. Some of your friends may not hear about the baby if the algorithm finds other priorities that day.

Speaking of which, we give a lot of power to the algorithm when we use social media.  Businesses, both large and small, are likely to scrape the public feed to identify new parents so they can tailor ads  for them- e.g., rural/urban; baby boy/ baby girl, one parent/two parent home; etc. I don’t know if this issue is real yet, but posting pictures also opens up the door to train algorithms on facial recognition from birth onwards!  

Precious Moments

That’s a long run concern. For the short term, your friends are going to be wrapped up in their social media, checking to see who liked the post and going back to the platform to comment. That is going to take time away from baby.

This is the same issue if your friends choose text instead to post about the new arrival. Friends will want to say congratulations and get a  home address. But, a phone that pings and rings is an annoyance. It diverts our focus and attention, as well as that rare sleep. The first couple of weeks are precious, and deserve ‘time off’ from notifications and badges. 

In closing, I do recognize that the way we celebrate things publicly does change over time. Newspapers used to print birth announcements, and they got their data from the public registry.  I personally enjoyed reading them to learn what baby names were in vogue! No matter what medium your friend chooses, I am sure that her closest friends and families will find out and that is what counts.