From privacy settings to mental health concerns, here’s what parents need to know about the popular photo-sharing app Instagram, including important safety measures to take ASAP.

By Nicole Harris and Anna Halkidis
Updated October 01, 2020
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Credit: Getty Images

You can’t ignore the popularity of Instagram. With a slew of celebrities using it every day to share tidbits of their lives, the photo-sharing app has become the epitome of cool since it launched in 2010. And for better or worse, no one knows cool better than kids.

With an Instagram account, digital natives like teens and children—who make up a substantial portion of the platform's user base—can upload images and videos, post 15-second “stories” that disappear in 24 hours, interact with friends, send private messages, watch long-form content on IGTV, and browse billions of photographs. 

Users love how Instagram promotes innovation and creativity, but with all that freedom to share information also comes a host of safety issues, including mean behavior, inappropriate content, and a need for perfection. Here's what parents need to know to keep their children safe while using Instagram.

What Parents Need to Know About Instagram

Kids can connect with anyone on Instagram.

Instagram users have two account options found under “Account Privacy” in settings: public and private. Any Instagram user can view and follow a public account; this is beneficial for those looking to gain a social media following, but it presents a host of safety concerns. You never know who might engage with your child’s photos and videos, or send them unwanted messages and comments. (Note that messages from non-followers don’t appear directly in your inbox; rather, they're message requests that can be accepted or declined.) 

Instagram users often strive for perfection

Instagram is driven by “likes,” which can quickly turn the platform into a popularity contest. This emphasis on status and self-promotion can take a toll on a child’s self-esteem, contribute to anxiety, and spark feelings of envy. What’s more, children might go out of their way to create impressive content—and this might lead them to try dangerous challenges (such as the Cinnamon Challenge) or pose in inappropriate outfits. 

Young people might also have a difficult time realizing that not everything they see on Instagram is real. Filters and photo editing can alter a person’s appearance, which could create a desire for unattainable perfection. It might also deplete a child’s confidence and make them obsessed with body image. Certain hashtags (such as #thighgap or #skinnyinspiration) also negatively affect self-image. 

Kids might come across inappropriate content.

An Instagram user’s homepage consists of photos and videos from people they follow. But children can also navigate Instagram's Explore feature, which algorithmically curates public content based on your child’s interests and interactions. They can also search for photos using “hashtags” (categories on specific topics). Due to the nature of the app, kids might stumble upon people participating in dangerous students and challenges, prejudiced or racist viewpoints, substance use, violent photographs, sexual videos, and other inappropriate content. Kids can view these public posts even if their own account is set to private.

Cyberbullying happens on Instagram.

As with every form of social media, some users report cyberbullying and trolling. The perpetrators can be a user’s friends or random strangers (if they have a public account). Cyberbullying is relatively common—a March 2019 survey from The Cyberbullying Research Center revealed that 36.5 percent of respondents experienced cyberbullying at some point in their lives. It’s been linked to emotional distress,  school violence or avoidance, depression, and other negative consequences.

Social media contributes to mental health problems.

A recent study found teens who spend more time on their screens are more likely to report depressive symptoms and suicidal behaviors. Instagram has also been linked to anxiety, loneliness, and a “fear of missing out” (FOMO). If your kids don’t have content filtering, they could potentially come across photos or videos that are highly personal or sensitive—even ones that glorify self-harm or eating disorders. 

How Parents Can Protect Their Kids

Talk openly about Instagram.

“I encourage parents to start open and authentic conversations with the youth in their lives with the goal of learning about their young person’s social media experience,” says Janis Whitlock, the director of the Cornell Research Program on Self-Injury. “Positive communication about these issues can lead to deeper conversation about whether or not youth or adults in their lives are worried about anything that they have seen or experienced related to social media use." 

Understand the app yourself.

If mom and dad become familiar with Instagram, they can better monitor their child’s usage. Consider setting up your own account or looking through Instagram with your child. This will also help you answer your child’s questions regarding content, safety, and more.

Update their privacy settings.

Unlike public accounts, which can be viewed by anyone, private accounts are only accessible to your followers. Only approved users can view your images and stories (non-followers can only see your display name, profile picture, and bio). You can easily switch from a public to a private account, and vice versa. 

Users, even those who are private, can be even more selective with who interacts with them. They can create an exclusive list of followers using the feature “Close Friends.” People on this list will be the only ones allowed to view their Instagram story.

Block and mute unwanted interactions.

Instagram's blocking interactions feature lets you “block” accounts from interacting with your posts, stories, and live broadcasts. The blocked person will never be notified, and they can be unblocked at any time.

If your kid doesn’t want to block someone but isn’t interested in interacting with that specific person, they can simply mute the account. By taping the quotations symbol in the corner of one of that person’s posts, they can choose whether to mute feed or story posts, or both. Again, that person will never know.

Restrict comments, resharing, and activity status.

Instagram users can choose who is allowed to comment on posts, whether it’s no one at all, everyone, their own followers, or people they follow and those people’s followers, What’s more, users can control who can reshare their posts and who can tag them in photos. Your kid can also turn off “Show Activity Status” so no one sees if they're currently online or the last time they were.

Install filters to block crude content.

Instagram has more features to prevent bullying and other negative interactions. Built-in filters can automatically remove offensive words and phrases from their feed, Explore page, profile, and live videos—and users can also create their own customized filters. They can even block emojis they don’t want to see in the comments section by going to “Filters” in the Comment Controls section. Consider working with your child to implement filters on their accounts, which could help prevent cyberbullying.

Limit screen time.

Through an activity dashboard, Instagram lets users know how much time they spend on the app. Parents can review this information with their child and set a daily time limit. For example, they can set a reminder to stop using Instagram after 30 total minutes per day (but keep in mind that your kid can still use the app after the timer has gone off; the tool is mostly for self-regulation). 

As an alternative, Instagram users can turn off notifications to quell the impulse to check for updates. Instagram also displays a message reading “You’re all caught up”  when users have looked at all new content on their feed; this might eliminate the pressure to keep scrolling. 

Turn off location settings. 

Instagram users can tag their location whenever they post content. Talk to your teen about your preferences regarding location settings. You might allow them to post general whereabouts (like cities or states) instead of specific places (like restaurant or street names). Alternatively, you might turn off location settings altogether, especially if you’re worried about potential predators finding your child. You should also tell your kid to avoid posing in front of recognizable locations, such as the outside of their favorite local store, since people can easily track it.

Teach best practices.

Even with privacy settings installed, some safety concerns can fall through the cracks. It’s important to address these with your child before they use Instagram. For example, your kid might think that Instagram stories (15-second clips that delete after 24 hours) can do no harm—but remind them that others can screenshot these photos and videos, which might lead to long-term consequences.

Encourage kids to report bullying.

Every so often, Instagram users come across an unkind or unwelcome photograph or comments. Let your teen know if they spot an account, photo, video, comment, message, or story that is intended to bully or harass someone, they can report it.

Consider installing a third-party app.

Some third-party apps make it easier to control your child’s social media usage. For example, Bark can track Instagram conversations, restrict screen time, detect potential safety risks, and more.

How Is Instagram Handling Safety Concerns?

Children under 13 aren’t allowed to use Instagram without verifiable parental consent, per the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. And Instagram is now making it mandatory to ask a user’s date of birth when signing up. This is part of the platform’s latest initiative to create a safe and supportive environment for everyone.

What’s more, in December 2019, Instagram launched Pressure to be Perfect, a collaboration with The Jed Foundation (JED), an organization focused on protecting emotional health and preventing suicide for teens and young adults. The campaign features two digital toolkits found online—one for parents and another for teens—that will help facilitate difficult conversations about social pressures. It also offers tools teens can use to learn to feel they can be their genuine selves on Instagram minus feeling any anxiety to be “perfect.”

"At JED, we think that social media is allowing many young people to express mental health experiences in a more open way, and that social media allows people to identify signs of distress among peers," says Victor Schwartz, M.D., medical director of The Jed Foundation. "However, social media may also be contributing to anxiety, stress, and depression, as this medium can encourage social comparison and the pressure to be perfect."

To put together the toolkits, Instagram also worked with Whitlock, who says the Pressure to be Perfect toolkit is meant to help parents assist young people in making their Instagram life balanced and positive. “The parent toolkit introduces three key takeaways from recent research about healthy Instagram use: the value of sharing thoughtfully, the importance of responding to others with kindness, and the power of learning to maintain a healthy perspective on oneself and life, no matter what idealized images of others one is exposed to on or offline,” she says.

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