5 Reasons Every Parent Should Beware of Instagram

Photo: Jamoutinho / Creative CommonsYou think you've got what's hot and trending under control because you use Facebook? Think again. Until I recently experienced one of the latest social media trends through the eyes of my middle-school aged niece, I realized that both you and I have a lot to catch up on.

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Welcome to Instagram. Until now, I've seen my Facebook friends post photos through Instagram, and I thought it was just a cool and convenient way to share photos, giving it an old-school Polaroid feel. Sure, it is that -- but it's so much more. So here's the lowdown.

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1. It's Like Facebook 101 for Pre-Teens
Since Facebook bought Instagram for a mere $1 billion (a fact that my 13-year old nephew chimed in to remind me), it was a no-brainer once I learned more about it that it hit me: Instagram is really a crash course for kids on Intro to Social Networking. Why? Instagram goes one step further than just posting photos out: It has its own social networking service built in. Within seconds, kids learn to comment, like, and check out what all their friends are doing - all within Instagram. Since it's photo-based, it's more than just posting your status in words. It's a "Look what I did" or "Check out what I'm doing" or "See what I got?" or "Guess where I am now" world through instantly posted pictures with a caption. A big wow for me was the bottom line: Kids don't feel like they need a Facebook account.

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"Why would I?" was the impression I got from my 11-year-old niece when I asked her if she was begging my sister to let her have her own Facebook account. Facebook is out, Instagram is in. That piqued my interest to dive further.

2. It's Warp Speed Fast
I guess they had to make the "insta" in Instagram as accurate as possible. Kids click to take a photo with their phone, and with just one more tap, it can be shared out to Instagram. The process was a lot faster than having to take another step to upload and choose a photo to post out on Facebook. And just as fast were the responses to the photos. Double taps on the photo to like them. Wow, I thought back to the days when I was a pre-teen. I had to ask my mom to use the phone. We had usually hours to reflect on anything that may have happened with a friend that day. With Instagram, I could see how a negative photo or comment mixed with the emotions and hormones of middle-schoolers could potentially down-spiral-fast.

3. Private Setting Still Reveals Personal Info
There are two simple privacy settings - your account can either be private or public. Private means that only your friends are allowed to see your photos. Public is anyone. But (big BUT) everyone can see your bio. Agh! All these creepy people out there could just be stalking kids Instagram accounts, and quickly learning who didn't get the right lessons on Internet Safety. Kids could be posting private information in their bios, thinking they have a private account. Hopefully they have learned not to write anything too personal such as their home address, a phone number, or what school softball team they play for.

4. Who Really Are Your Friends?
A big red flag for me were the number of friends your kids may have quickly. Many kids have at least 200 online friends, and many are friends of friends. But I can also imagine all the kids who just click on people and make them a friend just for the sake of tallying up more friends. That really compromises the meaning of 'friend' to me at an age that friends are really, really important. Before your child sets up an Instagram account, set up your own, even if it's under a fake name, and be sure they make you a friend so you can see what is going on at all times.

5. It's Highly Addictive
How popular is it? When I started to type the letter "i" into google, it was the 2nd most popular search suggestion, only trailing the iPhone. I think that's a good indication of saying you and I better get with it. Just keep an eye on how often your child is checking Instagram or any messages. The more you do something in an involuntary way, the more it becomes a habit. Unhealthy tech habits are hard to break - just think about your own!

What You Should Do About It
Instagram has restrictions. You're supposed to be thirteen years old to have an account. But honestly, I don't worry about that. We can't keep these things from our kids forever, no matter when you allow your child to start. If it's not Instagram, there will be something else. Take the effort to be aware of what your child is doing on technology -- it should be a privilege. Instill the set of creative thinking, problem-solving, and respect that will carry over from their "real" lives to their online lives. And stay up on what's trending. If you don't have a cool 11-year old niece, then you better go find a good source.

This post was written by Laura St. John.

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