A few weeks ago, I had one of those humbling, weak-at-the-knees parenting moments. Another mother was relating a story about bullying and miscommunication on Instagram when I realized her daughter was 10 years old. In fourth grade. Same age as my youngest daughter.
Instagram? For nine and ten-year-olds?
I panicked. Was my littlest girl on this picture-sharing social network. I had no idea. Me, the social media “expert,” totally unaware what my own kid was doing. Huh.
Truth is, this whole conversation took me by surprise. I had never thought of discussing Instagram with her. It never occurred to me that this was a conversation to be had with a fourth-grader. We were too busy talking about spelling words, long division, why she was now old enough to walk the dog by herself but not yet old enough for babysitting.
When her older sisters were in fourth grade four short years ago, all the kids had Nintendo DS games. No social networks. No “liking” and “friending” and “following.”
It seems a lot has changed in the intervening 48 months. Most of these nine and ten-year-olds have iPod Touches or iPads of their own. They use email and FaceTime and Skype without a thought. And though I don’t know of any of her peers who are on Facebook yet (though the average age in North America for a first Facebook account is 11 years old), it seems many parents either don’t know or don’t understand what it means for their children to be on Instagram.
This Huffington Post article does a great job explaining exactly what it might mean. Author Hollee Actman Becker uses one of the preferred analogies in my parenting workshop: “…letting your child have an Insta (you knew they called it that, right?) without teaching them how to use it properly is like buying your kid a car without teaching them how to drive.”
Exactly. We are handing them the keys to this incredibly powerful communication tool without teaching them how to use it safely, how to protect themselves and how to avoid hurting others.
Right now you are possibly wondering how anyone could really get hurt on a picture-sharing social network. Turns out there are many ways. Actman Becker describes the incredibly popular use of the site for beauty contests among tweens (especially girls):
See, right now, as I sit here typing this, there is a tween girl with an iPhone somewhere making a grid out of four pictures of her besties using Instacollage or Mixel or whatever cool new app is making the rounds this week (omg Juxtaposer is sooooo amaze!)
When she’s finished, she will post that grid on Instagram, and then write something along the lines of: BEAUTY CONTEST! VOTE SOMEONE OUT!
Did you just throw up in your mouth a little? I know I did when this whole thing blew up here on the Main Line over the weekend.
And I’ll get to that in a minute.
But wait. That’s not even the worst part. Because what happens next is this: People will actually vote for who they think is the least attractive in the comments, and whichever girl’s name is written the most will be awarded a big fat X drawn across her face.
Whether your child ends up with the X across her beautiful little face or not (or whether s/he is merely a spectator to this demeaning, reactionary kind of representation), it’s clear that kids are getting hurt. And it’s not their fault.
It’s ours. Because we didn’t teach them it wasn’t OK. Mostly because we didn’t know we had to talk about this with our fourth graders.
In my case, I resisted the panicky urge to call her school and have her brought to the office to tell me over the phone if she even had an Instagram account. (Turns out she didn’t – “Mom, you already told me I couldn’t have a Facebook account yet so I figured I couldn’t go on Instagram either.” Which officially makes this the first time this, um, spirited child has ever not tested me to the absolute limit. Shocker. And I don’t expect this miraculous compliance to last long.)
Moreover, the story from the other mom of a fourth grader that inspired this whole post wasn’t about these beauty pageants either. It was about how the usual social drama of ten-year-old girls gets exponentially magnified and distorted in an online world where clicking “like” makes you someone’s favourite friend or not.
But the whole experience taught me that for parents, the world is moving much faster than it used to. I can’t assume the digital experiences of my older daughters will be true for my youngest. A lot changes in four years. And it taught me that teaching digital citizenship needs to begin with our youngest kids as soon as they learn to click and swipe. Like teaching them about sex, drugs or alcohol, if you’re waiting for your kids to come to you for advice, you’re waiting way too long.
What parents should do:
- Tell your child they need to ask for permission to open all social network accounts.
- Make sure you have their username and password.
- Review their posts and comments from time to time.
- Make sure their account is set to “private” and geotagging is turned off.
- Make sure they know to never, ever give out personal information like their real name, address or phone number? Many kids don’t think twice about mentioning the name of their school either, but that’s clearly a really bad idea.
- Get your own Instagram account and follow them. You need to know what your children are doing.
- Explain that they must never, ever post a picture that might hurt or embarrass someone else.
- Explain that anything they post on the Internet is written in ink – it’s there forever.
- Explain why they shouldn’t be posting pictures of themselves in bikinis or revealing bathing suits (yes, I know your nine-year-old still looks like a baby in her bikini, but there are a lot of ways that representation can be used to hurt her).
- Talk to your child (girls and boys) about how those Instagram beauty contests are demeaning and hurtful. They are not just a silly game done just for fun. In a world where the Steubenville rape victim was further victimized for reporting her assault, where bullying victim Amanda Todd was judged by other girls as a “slut” for impulsively giving in to exhortations to flash her 12-year-old boobs at a webcam, these images have meaning.
- Suggest your kids ways they can turn this around with more positive kinds of pictures (see image attached). Tell them to speak out when they see beauty contests promoted among friends and followers, and how being a conscientious objector can help them be safer, more respectful digital citizens.