Photo By: Ellie Van Houtte/Town Crier
I appeared at a book event in Marin recently, and a few teenage girls attended with their mothers. One mother-daughter pair asked me about Instagram and what was appropriate to post. The eighth-grade girl thought that if people posted photos of themselves in bathing suits, why couldn’t she post shots of herself in her underwear?
Instagram has only been around since 2010. I use it – it’s simple, fun and, let’s be honest, some of the photos look far more remarkable than the originals. And when you take a fun photo, you want to share it with everyone. The filters – which lend everyday photos an artistic flair – have made the app a sensation among teenage and adult social-networkers alike. Although the site claims that it restricts use to children older than 13, younger students often find ways to create their own accounts.
For many teens, Instagram can become an addiction. Many students readily admit that they waste hours perusing and posting. They might intend to spend only a few minutes taking a homework break, but then hours pass without warning. It’s easy to get sidetracked by browsing, writing comments and posting photos.
Some parents may mistakenly think their children are working on their homework when they’re actually on Instagram. Others who monitor their children’s Instagram activity may be blindsided to learn that their children have created multiple hidden accounts to access without parental supervision.
And it’s not just Instagram. Snapchat, a popular app that allows people to send photos or messages that disappear a few seconds after being viewed, transmits more than 150 million messages daily. The vast majority of Snapchat users are between 13 and 25 years old, with peak hours 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Given that those are school hours, it’s easy to surmise that many students are using Snapchat during and in between class, and on school grounds.
Another social website, Ask.fm, allows people to ask questions and post comments anonymously, similar to Formspring. The developers of such sites insist that they allow the free flow of information, but the potential for mean-spirited comments and rumor-spreading can leave longer digital traces than comments in the hallway or notes passed in class.
Maturing in the social-media spotlight
Social networking sites in themselves aren’t harmful – it’s how and what teens choose to post that can be damaging.
Sometimes, students are simply trying to figure things out as they mature. Instagram beauty pageants, for example, invite girls to post photos of themselves (and friends, acquaintances and frenemies) and allow others to write potentially snarky and distasteful comments and choose winners and losers of the digital competitions. The end results are that young girls are objectified and the potential for detrimental long-term repercussions is great.
It is essential for parents, educators and mentors to be aware of the evolving negative uses for seemingly innocuous social-networking tools like Instagram.
Some children don’t fully understand when they are being harassed or when their comments are offensive or inappropriate. They need regular conversations to help them think through good choices. Collaborate with your children to develop guidelines – leave the emotion out of it. Feign curiosity to uncover the latest developments in their schools’ cultures. Ask them what their friends and classmates are doing – sometimes teens are more likely to talk about others’ choices before they would turn the spotlight on themselves.
Whether or not your children are online, they are exposed to more choices at an earlier age. Parents should discuss the different choices with children and allow them to develop their own personal ethical compasses.
Although structure and guidance are important, simply restricting children from technology won’t always work in a world where the next big thing is released regularly, along with ways to circumvent potential restrictions.
Open communication remains key – review their feed with them and discuss the types of photos being posted as well as the differences between appropriate and inappropriate sharing. Students are often trying to delineate for themselves without a great deal of guidance, especially as peers may not be making good choices.
Ana Homayoun is founder and director of Los Altos-based Green Ivy Educational Consulting, 302 Main St., Suite 201. For more information, visit www.greenivyed.com.