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.
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.