I finally joined Instagram, and then I fell down a rabbit hold of tween social media usage. Some of what I found was innocuous, some was not.
As soon as I joined, the app used my phone’s contact list to tell me who I might want to follow. Because many of my kids’ friends (and their parents) are in my contact list, Instagram had plenty of recommendations for me. The vast majority of both kids and adults that I found did not have their accounts set to private. By looking at the lists of who each kid was following, or was followed by, I was able to jump around pretty easily and see the photos of tons of kids I know, and kids I don’t know.
From Instagram, I fell down a rabbit hole of social media sites. The Instagram profiles link to ask.fm pages. The ask.fm pages link to Twitter. Twitter leads to Tumblr. It’s a baklava of social media out there, and the layers never stop accumulating.
By searching Instagram for my kids’ school, I found a group where kids submit their photos to be “matched up” with a boy or girl from their grade. It sounds horrible but it’s actually pretty innocent; the digital equivalent of notes I probably passed in middle school and high school. The difference is that when it turns sour, and a kid doesn’t like who he’s “matched up” with, someone’s humiliation is that much more public. That’s when things can slide easily from cyber fun to cyberbullying.
The endless parade of duck-faced selfies was to be expected, but I wasn’t expecting to see girls as young as 11 or 12 posing in shorty-shorts and cami tops, looking over their shoulders and popping out their booties. I wasn’t expecting boys their age to be responding with “dat ass” and other, much more explicit, comments.
I wasn’t expecting to find a 12-year-old girl’s description of getting high, or a public discussion of what kinds of sexual activities two young girls might be participating in together. (Note: the girls in question were participating in said discussion.)
But mostly what I wasn’t expecting was this: that kids I know full well to be smart kids with caring parents are doing every single thing they’ve been told not to do on the Internet: give out the name of the school they attend and the town that they live in. Give out their phone numbers. Give out their names. Many of the kids were using not just their real names, but their real first, middle, and last names as their user names.
I use social media every day, for both personal and professional reasons. There’s nothing inherently bad about social media. But it does need limits, it does need privacy protections in place, and it does need monitoring.
Case in point: Two girls in Florida have been arrested in connection with the suicide of 12-year-old Rebecca Sedwick, who had been cyberbullied.
Police investigating the case say that after Rebecca’s death, a 14-year-old girl posted on Facebook, “Yes, I know I bullied Rebecca and she killed herself but I don’t give a f—.”
The police’s image of the Facebook post had more than 30 likes, more than 30 shares and over 200 comments, according to ABC News.
Of course, social media is more than just Facebook, and parents need to know what their kids are using, and how they’re using it. Parents should know that, like adults, kids are likely to be using more than one platform. Unlike adults, however kids are more likely to have multiple Facebook accounts, and multiple Instagram accounts; kids may have one page that’s “parent-friendly” and one where they post everything else. Or, they may just use the accounts for different things: one Instagram account might be for photos of friends, another might be for collecting and sharing My Little Pony images.
I researched, I joined, and I talked to teens and tweens to find out which platforms and apps are currently in use to put together a basic primer for parents. For more detailed information on any of these apps and platforms, I’ve provided links to the sites themselves, which all have FAQ pages. Another good resource for parents is Common Sense Media.
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