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It’s unclear if Instagram for kids is really in the works. It’s ironic that an app meant to ease parental anxieties is getting so much pushback from parents and child safety experts. Ironic, but not surprising. It’s been a boon to the peddlers of parental control apps, but otherwise, Instagram for Kids looks like much ado about nothing. This is not the same thing as saying that kids should use Instagram. I doubt that Instagram for kids will ever materialize because no kids want to use something “designed for kids,” but the real Instagram issues are a complex can of worms that a “kid friendlier” app can’t fix.
Kids Start Using Social Media Early
According to a 2017 report by the National PTA, 81% of parents reported that children start using social media between the ages of 8 and 13. That was before COVID. Instagram became the go-to place for teens fleeing all the “old people” on Facebook, and its notoriety across media means that it’s no secret from younger kids. Kids like Instagram because it is visual, and they can share, communicate, and follow others. Visual communication is processed faster in the brain. Internet memes say images are processed 60,000 times faster than text, although, like the proverbial goldfish’s attention span, the science is elusive. Nevertheless, images are processed more quickly in part because text is symbolic—it needs translation from symbols into meaning. Images contain much more information—just check the file size of an image and a text file to see how much more. An image communicates shape, color, spatial awareness, movement, patterns, and emotion and effectively triggers connections to existing experiences and memories. All that information exchange can enhance teens’ sense of connection, the enjoyment of creating, exploration and self-expression, finding others with similar interests and hobbies, and being inspired to try new things.
Parents will say: “That’s what I’m worried about—all those new things.” The main concern parents voice about allowing young kids on social media, in general, is exposure to sexual content and predators.
The threat from predators is real, but statistically, I’m more worried about kids’ tendency to disclose too much information unknowingly. And I’m much more concerned about over-sexualized images of young kids than about kids running across actual porn.
Social Influence Can Be Powerful in Both Good and Bad Ways
But the real dangers are more homegrown. Social influence is a powerful force. On the plus side, it plays a critical role in our survival and maintaining group cohesion, family loyalty, and cultural and social norms. We succumb to social influence because social connection, being accepted and valued are central to our emotional and physical well-being.
On the negative side, however, social media can skew the impact of social influence, making it psychologically attractive to emulate dangerous challenges, outrageous pranks, and cruel behaviors to be “liked.” Kids can make poor decisions when tempted by the promise of popularity and the fantasy of social media fame. Gaining followers and fans can feel important. More kids in the U.K. said they wanted to be influencers and YouTubers when they grow up than the traditional winners, doctors and teachers.
Without guidance, apps like Instagram can redefine what it means to be “popular” or a “good friend,” creating a situation where self-esteem can become reliant on likes, comments, and shares rather than competence or internal strengths.
Screen time isn’t a very good measure for judging the impact of media use. What we do online is more important than the time spent doing it. But over-reliance on technology and lack of life balance can exacerbate anxiety, depression, lack of exercise, and loss of sleep. There is a chicken-and-egg problem with most social media research since causality is so hard to isolate, but it’s pretty clear when the balance is out of whack, and someone concentrates on using social media at the expense of schoolwork and F2F relationships.
A Gold Mine of Data for Marketers
Another less obvious issue about kids on Instagram is on the data and information side. Being cool on social media can create information bubbles and the tendency to accept social media memes as truth.
While kids’ apps all claim to be “safer” and “more private,” data is gathered every time anyone posts, responds, or clicks. Ad targeting not only reinforces consumerism and superficial success, but it is becoming a part of a database of behavioral information that gives new meaning to “cradle to grave” marketing. Today’s Moana fan will be tomorrow’s college student with all the purchasing power that goes with it. Kids are one of the big untapped online markets, and tech companies have a vested interest in appealing to them before age 13. Hence Instagram for Kids—trying to make a product that parents can tolerate to attract the wannabe Instagrammers.
Now I should point out that there is no verification on age limits. If you are old enough to do the math (birth year needed to be over 13) and have an email or cell phone, you can make an Instagram account. A surprising number of 8-year-olds have cellphones, and email accounts are necessary for Google Classroom.
Most kids will prefer the “over-13” version of Instagram, particularly if they have older siblings. YouTube Kids hasn’t stopped younger kids from using the main site. TikTok has a section of the app for children under 13, but the lack of features makes it a poor substitute, and again, math skills are the only hurdle for the main app.
The Solution: Teach Good Social Media Habits
Don’t expect Instagram for Kids or any other app or tech company to keep your child safe. The skills to successfully navigate social media are transferable offline to everything from conflict resolution to civic participation.
The popularity of social media means it’s never too early to teach your kids good social media habits on any app—kid version or not.
- Start early with conversations to build trust.
- Come from a place of curiosity—ask what a child likes or why they want to use an app.
- Make learning privacy settings a priority for both parent and child.
- Reinforce good manners on and offline.
- Prepare kids with strategies for handling bullies and inappropriate content.
- Talk about the power of images and how they make your child feel. Negative social comparison affects all aspects of life. It doesn’t just spring up because of Instagram, but images can communicate misinterpretation about “everybody’s doing it” to “what I’m supposed to be like.” These are great conversations to have because Instagram lets you talk about important things like body image without your child feeling invaded.
- Set limits and strive for balance. Let the kid help pick when and how long so that they have some skin in the game. Listening is not the same as giving in.
- Reward responsible behavior with more privileges, not money.
- Model the behavior you want to see.
- Have an open-door policy so kids can talk to you about anything that comes up without fearing you will go ballistic.