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A parents' guide to Instagram: What parents need to know to keep kids safe

We know how Instagram and other social media can be toxic for teens. But it doesn't have to be that way. Here's what parents should know and do.
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/ Source: TODAY

Since former Facebook employee Frances Haugen testified before Congress about the how the social media company's platforms, which include Instagram, can “harm children,” many parents have worried about their children’s social media use. The company faces scrutiny over its own internal research that shows Instagram is harmful to teenage girls. TODAY spoke with experts about what parents need to know and do about their children using Instagram.

What is Instagram?

First things first: Instagram is a social media site that allows users to post pictures and videos to their profiles and share stories with friends. Stories, which can be photos and video, disappear after 24 hours. The site offers filters for images that change how photos look.

“There’s absolutely research that shows us that social media can exacerbate victimization during bullying and confidence and body issue images,” Dr. Deborah Gilboa, a parenting expert, told TODAY. “I would encourage parents to look at Instagram less like a playground where it’s totally safe to let their kids go play — while they do something else — and more like a driving course they have to go on with their child.”

How to keep children safe

Parenting experts agree that parents should take a hands-on approach to their child’s social media usage and focus on the positives.

1. Wait until 13

Gilboa advises parents not to allow children to use social media until they are 13. This is the age which most companies require children to be to use it.

“I always recommend waiting until your child is 13 before you allow them to click the link that says, ‘I’m 13’ and can join Instagram,” she told TODAY. “Their brain just needs that extra time to develop, to be able to see some of the things that you want them to see and to not be fooled by some of the things that you don’t want them to be fooled by.”

The minimum age may be 13 but even then, every parent should evaluate where their child is before considering an Instagram account.

“You definitely consider each child separately,” Dr. Candice Jones, an Orlando, Florida pediatrician, told TODAY. “One 14-year-old may definitely be more mature as far as their crucial thinking, executive functioning skills, their decision making skills … versus another 14-year-old who might totally not be ready.”

2. Think about social media before your child uses it

“Parents absolutely need to think about what comes with being on social media and think about if their child is ready,” Jones said. “It starts with the parents first understanding all the dynamics of social media on a child and what that can mean and what can happen and how that could affect what they’re exposed to.”

3. Supervise and talk

While some children and teens will understand that a filter created flawless skin or a story shows a perfectly curated moment in time, not all will get it. That’s why it’s important for parents to know what their children are seeing and doing on Instagram, at least for the first few years.

Sit next to your child and look at posts, Gilboa advised. "Say, ‘Wow, she looks amazing in that picture but her shoulders are the same width as her wrists and humans aren’t built like that, how do you think they did that?’” she said. “For a slightly older child you might say, ‘Why do you think they did that? What messages do you feel like that puts out?’”

Talking like this with parents helps children better understand and question all media, not just Instagram.

“When we teach kids to look for the trick like that, they all become much more savvy consumers of media,” Gilboa said.

Jones said parents should explain that they will be observing their child’s social media use.

“Parents can say, ‘This is what you can do. This is what you can’t do. These are the fail-safes I’m going to put into place to keep you safe, the privacy settings, checking in,’” she said. “You’re able to help your child navigate and process through the stuff they’re seeing.”

4. Set limits

Social media becomes problematic when teens overuse it.

“What we are concerned about is the negative aspects — when it gets too much. And there are two aspects to that. One is the sheer volume that some kids get on social media,” Dr. Petros Levounis, professor and chair of the Department of Psychiatry at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, told TODAY. “If they end up neglecting important other developmental milestones in terms of athletics, in terms of academics, in terms of dating, in terms of developing interpersonal relations outside the electronic medium — that does have negative consequences.”

Jones recommends that parents collect all devices, game controllers and remote controls prior to bed so teens don't have unsupervised late-night social media sessions.

“Parents set up structure in their homes. Young people thrive on that. It teaches them for later in life. It also sets them up for success,” Jones said. She said it's good for parents to be “setting the rules and the structure around dinner time, around when these extracurricular digital forms can be used.”

5. Focus on creating a positive ‘brand’

When sitting down with children to observe their Instagram usage, parents don’t have to only talk about the negatives. They can use positive posts as examples for their children. If a parent likes what Simone Biles does on Instagram, they might start a conversation about it, for example.

“Encourage kids to figure out what their personal brand is. What do they want to be known for? What are the adjectives they want people to use to describe them and then how can they use their social media to promote that stuff?” Gilboa said.

This is an excellent chance for parents to point out that whatever you post online can define you, forever, and to a really large audience. Children understand brands, so parents can start a conversation about what identity they want to create for themselves online.

Gilboa said, “They can proactively use social media to make the world a better place and be known for the things that matter for them.”