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.