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A guide to keeping your child safe on Instagram

From reducing one's own phone usage to openly communicating with your child, social media experts give suggestions to parents

Parents may need to be open about sharing their own activity around the child.
Parents may need to be open about sharing their own activity around the child. (iStock)

If you are parent of a teenager, who is a user of Instagram, the recent revelations from Facebook whistleblower would have amplified your concern. And rightly so. Frances Haugen, a former employee of Facebook, revealed to the US senate, earlier this week, about the internal Facebook studies of the harms the popular photo sharing app had for teenagers.

“The patterns that children establish as teenagers stay with them for the rest of their lives. The kids who are bullied on Instagram, the bullying follows them home. Kids are learning that their own friends, people who they care about, are cruel to them.,” Haugen said in her testimony.

In spite of the issues using the social media app, it's difficult to wean your away from it. Experts, however, say parents can put up measures to protect their children.  Open lines of communication, age limits and if necessary, activity monitoring are some of the steps parents can take to help kids navigate the dangers of social media, while continuing to allow them access to chat with peers on their own terms.

In her testimony, Haugen suggested raising the age limit to 16 or even 18. There has been a push among some parents, educators and tech experts to wait to give children phones — and access to social media — until they are older, such the “Wait Until 8th” pledge that has parents sign a pledge not to give their kids a smartphone until Class 8. But neither social media companies nor the government have done anything concrete to increase the age limit.

Christine Elgersma, a social media expert at the nonprofit Common Sense Media, believes that there is no right age in allowing children to use social media. "13 is probably not the best age for kids to get on social media,” she adds.

Unfortunately, there's no reliable way to verify a person's age when they sign up for apps and online services. And the apps popular with teens today were created for adults first. “Developers need to start building apps with kids in mind,” Elgersma said. And no, she doesn't mean Instagram Kids, the project Facebook paused last week amid a widespread backlash. “We can’t trust a company that didn’t start with kids' best interests in mind,” she said.

Start early, earlier than you think, Elgersma suggests. Parents should go through their own social media feeds with their children before they are old enough to be online and have open discussions on what they see. How would your child handle a situation where a friend of a friend asks them to send a photo? Or if they see an article that makes them so angry they just want to share it right away?

For older kids, approach them with curiosity and interest. “If teens are giving you the grunts or the single word answers, sometimes asking about what their friends are doing, or just not asking direct questions like ‘what are you doing on Instagram?’ but ‘hey, I heard this influencer is really popular’. Even if your kid rolled their eyes it could be a window," she suggested. 

Certainly don’t say things like “turn that thing off” when your kid has been scrolling for a long time, says Jean Rogers, the director of Fairplay, a nonprofit that advocates for kids to spend less time on digital devices. “That’s not respectful. It doesn’t respect that they have a whole life and a whole world in that device,” Rogers said. 

Instead, Rogers suggests asking them questions about what they do on their phone, and see what your child is willing to share.

Kids are also likely to respond to parents and educators “pulling back the curtains” on social media and the sometimes insidious tools companies use to keep people online and engaged, Elgersma said. Watch a documentary like " The Social Dilemma ” that explores algorithms, dark patterns and dopamine feedback cycles of social media. Or read up with them how Facebook and TikTok make money. “Kids love to be in the know about these things, and it will give them a sense of power,” she said.

Most parents have success with taking their kids’ phones overnight to limit their scrolling, Rogers says. Occasionally kids might try to sneak the phone back, but it’s a strategy that tends to work because kids need a break from the screen. “They need to an excuse with their peers to not be on their phone at night. They can blame their parents," Rogers said. 

Parents may need their own limits on phone use, and be open about sharing their own activity around the child. It’s helpful, Rogers says, as the child understand you are not aimlessly scrolling through sites like Instagram. Tell your child that you’re checking work email, looking up a recipe for dinner or paying a bill so they understand you’re not on there just for fun. Then tell them when you plan to put the phone down.

It’s not a fair fight. Social media apps like Instagram are designed to be addictive, says Roxana Marachi, a professor of education at San Jose State University, who studies data harms. “The companies are not interested in children’s well being, they’re interested in eyes on the screen and maximizing the number of clicks,” Marachi said. 

Without new laws that regulate how tech companies use our data and algorithms to push users toward harmful content, there is only so much parents can do, Marachi said.


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