Like it or not, your tween is probably already obsessing over Instagram. Here's how to talk with your child about social media before they make an account, plus tips from Instagram's new "Parent's Guide" for keeping them safe.

Children Using Cell Phones Leaning on Gate
Credit: Twin Design/Shutterstock

If you thought you could coast when it comes to talking to your child about social media until she is well into her teenage years, think again. Even though kids under 13 aren’t technically allowed to use social media sites like Instagram, many grade-school kids are working around the system. In fact, the number of children using fake birthdays and a parent’s email address to create accounts on popular social media sites (whether they have permission or not) is a bit startling: 

According to 2017 research from Ofcom, regulator for the communications services in the United Kingdom, about 28% of 10-year-olds, 46% of 11-year-olds, and whopping 51% of 12-year-olds surveyed had a social media profile. That means instead of kickball, conversations at recess for your fourth grader may very well be focused more on who posted what on Facebook last night. Scary, we know.

There are no doubt perks to having kids the proper age connecting with their peers on social media. Platforms like Instagram are full of inspiration for kids to celebrate the achievements of others and be creative with how they express themselves. But parents should also be aware of potential exposure to cyberbullying and inappropriate content. Younger children in particular may not realize the consequences of their online actions, which may put them in compromising situations. These are risks that the popular photo-sharing app is taking seriously. 

Instagram recently collaborated with National PTA to create a new resource for parents called Know How to Talk with Your Teen About Instagram: A Parent’s Guide. The guide, which is available in print, video, and digital formats, encourages parents to take action when it comes to their child’s privacy, interactions, and time spent on the platform. The message: When your child is starting off on social media, it's important to monitor their behavior online. Make sure they understand the risks and benefits associated with the account.

But Eddie Ruvinsky, director of engineering at Instagram, says monitoring isn't the end-all solution. "It's really about making sure that you have trust and you have ongoing dialogue for any activity that they do," he says.

Here are a few tips to get you started when it comes to teaching your child good social media habits early:

Start Early

Ana Homayoun, M.A., P.P.S, a social media expert and the author of Social Media Wellness: Helping Tweens and Teens Thrive in an Unbalanced Digital Worldwho worked with Instagram to create A Parent's Guide, says parents should start the conversation around social media early. "Even if kids aren't on social media, many are online from an early age and using different websites," she says. "In my experience, kids aren't being informed about Instagram and other social media apps from their parents–they are learning from friends, peers, older siblings, and other influencers–so it is important that parents take an active role in encouraging conversations."

Make a Plan

"I encourage coming from a place of curiosity and ask open-ended questions to help children identify why they want to join Instagram, what they think a positive experience on Instagram would look like for them, and who they could turn to if something feels uncomfortable and doesn't go as planned. Doing so allows them to proactively think about how they would define and create a positive online use experience," says Homayoun. She suggests using the the three S's–healthy socialization, effective self-regulation, and overall safety–as a guide for framing the discussion.

Prioritize Privacy

"A lot of people don't always know they have the ability to be private on Instagram," says Lori Malahy, research lead at Instagram. Turning your account on private mode means that only approved followers can view, comment, and like your content. This could prevent your child's personal information from ending up in the wrong hands. Take a cue from Dan Zigmond, director of analytics at Instagram, who required his kids to have a private account and personally know all their followers.

Enforce Good Etiquette 

Receiving mean comments on social media can hurt a child's self esteem – and writing the comments can get them into trouble. Talk with your child about proper social media etiquette, and utilize the tools outlined in Instagram's resource guide. For example, the app lets you filter out offensive or inappropriate words from your comments.

Set Time Limits

Tweens are still developing self-discipline, so it's not unusual for them to spend hours on social media platforms. Work together to determine an appropriate amount of time they should spend on apps each day, whether it's 15 minutes or one hour. You can also take advantage of Instagram's Activity Dashboard, which lets you control usage and limit distractions like push notifications. 

Teach Them Accountability

Cyberbullying is increasingly common nowadays. According to the 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 15% of surveyed high school students were electronically bullied in the previous 12 months. Thankfully, Instagram lets users control bullying by removing hateful comments, reporting negative behavior, and blocking individuals. "One of the most important things I'd like my son to understand is that things that happen online can affect how people feel offline," says Ian Spalter, the director of design at Instagram. "It's really important for them to take that into account with whatever actions they take online."

Practice What You Preach

You know by now that kids are sponges, and they are constantly learning by example. By practicing positive social media habits yourself, you're setting up your children for a positive, rewarding, and inspiring social media experience. 

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