Privacy & Security

Instagram and Teens: What Do You Need to Know?

By Benjamin Herold — September 12, 2018 6 min read
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Instagram has released a new guide for parents, aimed at preparing them to help teenagers better manage their time, interactions, and privacy on the hugely popular social media platform.

Included in the guide are instructions on using two of Instagram’s newest features: a dashboard that shows how long users have spent on the app, and a tool for setting daily limits on Instagram use.

Mostly missing, however, is fresh insight into Instagram’s own strategies for keeping users active on its platform, or any steps the company may be taking to minimize the pressure many users feel to present their lives in an idealized way.

Also not mentioned in the guide: that Instagram is owned by Facebook, and that the parent company collects and shares massive amounts of data on users across all its platforms.

The guide, titled “Know How to Talk With Your Teen About Instagram,” was produced in partnership with a range of organizations, including the National PTA, the National Alliance for Mental Health, and the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.

It comes just as new research shows that Instagram is the second-most popular social media platform among young people, with 61 percent of teens saying they use the platform, and 22 percent say it’s their main social media site, according to a national survey released Monday by Common Sense Media.

“We know many parents and guardians think about what their teens are doing online, and we feel a great responsibility to make sure Instagram is a positive place for them to connect and share,” wrote Marne Levine, the company’s chief operating officer, in a blog post announcing the new resource.

“We’re committed to being here every step of the way to make sure parents and their teens have the tools they need to make the choices that are right for them.”

What is Instagram?

Teens use the photo- and video-sharing app “to celebrate big milestones, share everyday moments, keep in touch with friends and families, build communities of support, and meet others who share their passions and interests,” according to Instagram’s new parent guide.

But while the document features glossy, glowing testimonials from teens, outside experts say the platform is home to a wide range of experiences.

Research from Common Sense Media and the Pew Research Center, for example, has consistently found that teens do indeed like Instagram as a means of connection, a forum for creative self expression, and a way to stay on top of news, gossip, and current events. The platform can also serve as a powerful vehicle for connecting marginalized and vulnerable teens to communities of support.

But compared to other social media, Instagram is also a place where teens are particularly likely to follow celebrities, encounter product placements, and attempt to curate and present a “perfect” image of themselves, often in search of the feedback the platform encourages, said Christine Elgersma, the senior editor for parent education at Common Sense Media.

“Seeking out ‘likes’ and follows [on Instagram] can be problematic, especially for teens,” Elgersma said. “You can start to rest your self-esteem on those things, and if it’s all based on how you look, that can affect your sense of self.”

In recent years, teens have also landed in trouble for using Instagram to post offensive and racist content and to make school-shooting threats.

And Elgersma said teens often use multiple Instagram accounts: a “rinsta,” which is highly curated and for a wider public, and a “finsta,” which is more casual, and limited to just close friends. (Across all platforms, the Common Sense survey found, 16 percent of teens have hidden duplicate accounts, and 7 percent said the purpose was to hide the account from their parents/caregivers.)

Particularly for those public Instagram accounts, the process of posting content is often “slow, calculated, and painstaking,” according to Katrin Tildenberg, an Estonian researcher who has extensively studied users’ practices on visual social media apps.

“Instagram is experienced and construed as an app where participation is effortful, driven by self-imposed rules, and occasionally depressing because of comparison to, and envy of, strangers’ beautiful lives,” Tildenberg wrote in a 2017 paper presented at the annual conference of the Association of Internet Researchers.

Sharing Data With Facebook

Then there are the privacy concerns.

Consistent with Facebook’s recent public push to reassure lawmakers and the public that that users are in control of the content they share, the new Instagram guide emphasizes to parents “there are a number of tools you can share with your teen that will give them more control over their digital identity and footprint.”

Among them: setting an account as private, and blocking accounts.

“Your teen can block accounts they don’t want to interact with,” the guide advises. “This will block people from seeing and commenting on their posts, stories, and live broadcasts.”

But neither strategy gets at the vast amounts of information that Instagram can collect from its users—including all the content they post and share, as well as their contacts, location, web-browsing history, device information, location, and more.

Nor does the guide reference Instagram’s policy that it may share that information with the “same group of companies that Instagram is a part of"—i.e., Facebook—and, in some cases, outside third parties, such as advertisers.

And it doesn’t appear that Instagram has changed any of the default privacy settings on its app, instead forcing users—including teens—to opt out of such practices as location tracking.

That’s why when it comes to privacy, groups such as Common Sense Media offer parents a different message than the company itself.

“It is safe to assume that these platforms will do everything they can to collect data that helps them target your kids,” said Ariel Fox Johnson, senior counsel for policy and privacy at Common Sense Media.

“Talk with your kids about whether or not they want to use Instagram in the first place, and if they do, take the time to change those default privacy settings that the companies prefer to much stronger settings that protect your family,” Johnson advised.

An Emphasis on Personal Responsibility

Efforts to interview Instagram officials were unsuccessful.

Author and social media expert Ana Homayoun, who helped write the company’s new guide, said she was “probably not the best person to answer” questions about Instagram’s data-collection and -sharing practices.

Ultimately, said Homayoun, the author of “Social Media Wellness: Helping Tweens and Teens Thrive in an Unbalanced Digital World,” the responsibility for ensuring healthier social media use rests with teens and families themselves.

“Regardless of what social media companies do or do not design, I think it comes down to helping students, giving them autonomy, and making sure they understand they can make choices,” she said.

Parents can promote healthy socialization and online safety by making sure teens know how to limit who can comment on their posts and report offensive or threatening comments, Homayoun said.

She also advises parents to help teens “customize and personalize” their feeds, filtering out and unfollowing the accounts that are “draining” while focusing on those that are “energizing.”

And the new guide closes with a list of 10 questions that Homayoun and Instagram suggest parents use to start a healthy conversation about the social media platform with their teens. Among them:

  • What do you wish I knew about Instagram?
  • How do likes and comments affect how you feel about a post?
  • Do you know your followers?
  • Have you ever felt uncomfortable with something you saw or experienced online?

The reality, Homayoun said, is that millions of teens are already on Instagram, and parents and educators need to meet them where they are.

“When you give kids information and the opportunity to make good choices, they actually come through,” she said. “I’m optimistic.”

Photo: Instagram logo

See also:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.