Protecting Kids’ Heart-Deep Identity: A Note to Parents about Instagram

I found this post by Sarah Brooks on her delightful blog Life as of Late. She graciously allowed us to repost it. 

To the parents of middle-schoolers on Instagram:

 

There is so much information out there about internet safety and you should definitely read up on that, but that’s not what I want to talk about.

Over the past several months, I’ve been noticing some interesting stuff on Instagram from your kids that I want to share with you.

“Hey, weirdo, why are you following my kids?” Good question, and I’ll get to that.

I am 25 years old, which is not just a fun fact, but important in the history of social media. MySpace started during my high school years, and Facebook started the year I went to college (when it was still just a site just for college students). So while my generation didn’t grow up with it, we were the first to use it. We’re bilingual, in a sense.

Your kids, on the other hand, don’t know a life without it and you’re doing your best to learn and keep up with it. So would you mind too terribly much if I acted as a bridge for a second? Give you some thinking material?

Let me back up.

My husband and I, along with our friends Kylie and Trenton, help in the youth ministry at our church. (Shoutout to the GREATEST 6TH GRADERS EVER!)

Several months ago, Kylie and I were asked to talk to the 8th graders at the middle school girls’ sleepover.

The topic was “Finding your identity in Christ“.

I would have much rather talked to them about sex or drugs or something, because those are pretty concrete topics. We’d stand up and say, “Don’t do it.” End of talk. It would be so moving we’d be asked back to speak at every event, naturally.

Instead, we were tasked with talking about something that a lot of adults I know don’t even know how to apply in their own lives.

What even is identity? And how do you talk to a group of middle school girls about finding their identity in an invisible God? And if they aren’t finding their identity in Him, where are they finding it?

After much thought and prayer, we decided to talk about something we know: social media. We talked about Instagram specifically, since a lot of these girls aren’t on Facebook yet and think Twitter is stupid.

I’m sure you’re aware of Instagram if your kids are on it, but if not, here’s a rundown of the app:

1. Your child gets an account and starts following other users.
2. In return, other users follow your child.
3. Your child posts a picture to his or her account.
4. Other users comment or “like” the picture.
5. Repeat. 87 times a day.

an example: left is my Instagram profile; right is the photo feed of all posted pictures

I love the app. It’s a lot of fun, but there are some components to it that I’m not sure we’ve thought all the way through.

Think back to when you were in junior high. How did you know you were “cool”? A popular girl probably wrote you a note and put it in your locker or asked you to sit with her at lunch, right? There were a few eyewitnesses and it was pure joy.

Do you remember back-to-school shopping? You bought the trendiest new shirts and shoes. But how did you know if your new shirt was cute? Someone told you, probably. How did you know if your new shirt was hideous? Again, someone probably told you. Or made fun of you, but luckily it was just between you and that person. Or – worst case scenario – between you and that person and their posse. Still, not life altering.

That was then.

This is now:

Your middle schooler buys a new shirt and what’s the first thing she does? Takes a selfie (self-portrait, for those out of the loop) and posts it on Instagram.

Think I’m joking?

A quick search of Instagram shows us… oh, look! – this was posted 18 minutes ago:

Ok, so not a big deal, this is how the world is. Your kids feel the need to share every single decision they ever make with the world at large. It’s just “kids these days”.

It’s true. It is “kids these days”. But does the feedback they receive on Instagram impact them? Do you think they base their identity in it?

What happens when your daughter’s new shirt picture didn’t get as many “likes” or comments as the picture her friend posted of her new shirt?

Do you think she even cares about that stuff?

Yea, I’d say so. Your sons do, too:

This guy specifically asks for comments AND a certain number of likes. 40, to be exact.

[Side note: don't forget to read what your kids post in the hashtags of their photos. (That's the # sign with a bunch of words crammed after it, like #40likesplease.) They use it as an aside comment, which, parents, is just as important to pay attention to as the photo caption.] 

We’re no longer in world of handwritten “circle yes or no” notes between two people; your kids are living social lives on a completely public forum.

This is not new information.

But, taking it a step further: have you considered that your child is given numerical valueson which to base his or her social standing? For the first time ever your children can determine their “worth” using actual numbers provided by their peers!

Let me explain…

Your daughter has 139 followers which is 23 less than Jessica, but 56 more than Beau. Your son’s photo had 38 likes which was 14 less than Travis’ photo, but 22 more than Spencer’s.

See what I mean? There’s a number attached to them. A ranking.

And if you think they don’t actually pay attention to this stuff, read the hashtags on these photos:

sorry for the ghetto circlage, but you get the point.

Do you see what’s happening? #3newfollowers, #77likes #i#am#so#popular, #morefollowersplease

They’re definitely paying attention. And it’s definitely affecting them.

It’s not just about assumed popularity anymore. It’s explicit. It’s quantifiable.

At arguably the most awkward time in their lives, a crucial time of development when they are trying to figure out who they are and where they belong, this is what they’re up against. A quantifiable popularity ranking.

So, back to the lesson we were supposed to teach. I started thinking about everything I’ve mentioned above and thought, “Maybe our girls are different. Maybe their faith buffers them from being caught up as deeply in this as their friends.”

Wrong.

In talking to our girls, I was blown away by their responses:

They know exactly – to the digit – how many followers they have (and who they follow that isn’t following them back). They get their feelings hurt when the popular kids “like” the pictures above and below theirs on the Instagram newsfeed, but not their picture. They delete pictures of themselves when they don’t get as many likes as they were hoping for. They don’t get invited to parties, but see all the fun they missed out on in every photo posted from it. They post ugly pictures of their friends to get revenge for some heinous act they committed (like saying Louis is their favorite One Direction member).

Whoa.

Before we all freak out and delete Instagram and all other social apps, may I just say (with approximately zero authority or expertise on the subject):

This is no cause for mass hysteria. My intent is not to scare you away from these sites, because I don’t think the solution is to write them off entirely. This is a part of your kids’ communication that is here to stay. (I don’t just mean Instagram – it could die tomorrow. But social media? It’s here for good, in some form or fashion.)

Remember: social media can be SO FUN. (I know you love you some Pinterest, girl.)

Plus, not all kids are the same. Some place an unhealthy amount of self worth in their social media accounts, some could care less about it. Regardless, it’s important to think about no matter where your children fall on the spectrum.

My intent is to dig a little deeper into the impact these sites can have on your kids. To start thinking about how to safeguard childrens’ hearts and minds against what appears to a 12 year old to be concrete numerical evidence about their value and popularity.

How do you regulate activity on these sites while keeping it fun for your kids? How do you talk to them about the numbers (likes, comments, followers) provided by their peers not being an accurate representation of their value and worth? How do you teach them to base their identity solely in Christ – to be confident daughters and sons of the King?

I have no idea.

I can tell you what we talked about with our 8th grade friends:

We talked about posting photos of things other than themselves, to avoid setting themselves up for insecurity about their appearance. We talked about guarding their hearts with scriptures from God’s Word and reminding themselves whose they were. We talked about inner beauty and encouraging their friends’ strengths and…a whole host of other stuff.

What we said isn’t really important. What’s important is where you come in, parents. You know your kids and you know the insecurities they face.

I hope this information is helpful for you, or at least gets you thinking. Or, if all else fails, got you to smile at my own Instagram picture of my son in his Little Tikes truck at Sonic. You know that’s cute.

I love your kids so, so much and I want them to know just how special and wonderful and unique they are. I don’t want a stupid thing like followers and likes to tell them any differently.

Check out Sarah’s blog, Life as of Late,  follow her on Twitter, or, yes, check out her Instagram account. 

Other posts from Sarah:

Detailed advice for protecting your kids on Instagram

Should your kid SnapChat? (And what is SnapChat?)

Everything You Need to Know About the Vine App that Lets Kids Share Video

 

About Rebecca Cusey

Rebecca is a lead critic and editor of entertainment at Patheos. Follow her on Twitter @Rebecca_Cusey

  • Mary Mustrove

    Thanks for this post. I never thought of it in these terms, but it does make sense that kids really seem to get their identity from these things. I don’t know if it is any different than it used to be. Growing up was always hard, but at least we didn’t do it quite so publicly.

  • Barbara

    Thank you for this. I’m researching Instagram because my daughter wants an account on it. I’ll insist on it being a private account, but you’ve really identified some issues that I’ll want to discuss and watch with her. I appreciate the “bridge.”

    • Rebecca Cusey

      It’s good to know what to discuss, isn’t it?

  • http://www.debistangeland.com/blog Debi @ DebiStangeland.com

    This is a great post. Thank you. I am keeping this one. (Ok, I’m actually pinning it!)

    I heard a story on the radio last month about a gal who runs a summer camp in Conn. She was saying how she has rules for all of her campers and that is that they cannot take pictures with their phones or ipods or whatever that don’t have heads in them. Kids today are too focused on the body and body parts (think sexting) and they leave off faces. She says without faces kids don’t see the people in the pictures as actual people. I so agree with this. I’m making this a rule in our house too.

    As you have shown in your post, this stuff matters. Thank you for your thoughtful and timely insight.

    • Rebecca Cusey

      Pin away! Yay!

      Sarah does a great job. Thanks for reading.

  • Matt Smith

    An important issue. Thanks for reposting it for us, Rebecca.

    • Rebecca Cusey

      Thanks for reading!

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  • http://wideopenground.com Lana

    Great post. I do have nervousness about the security of it all too. There is no doubt about it – some day we will be able to put in someone’s picture and search for every information about them based on the picture from teh web.

    • Rebecca Cusey

      Yep. And I shudder to think someone could see and judge me based on what I was like when I was 14.

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  • http://mbetharmstrong.wordpress.com Beth Armstrong

    Sarah is right on the money…thanks for sharing!
    To all parents raising kids in this crazy, mixed up world: hang in there, pay attention, be engaged w/ your kids, be their advocate, be their cheerleader, don’t be afraid to be the parent, wear your knees out, pray hard, and always trust God.

  • Dawn Keating

    Great article. You might also want to discuss that along with Instagram comes an ASK button where people can send you anonymous messages. My daughter received the meanest message that a 13 year old could handle and it destroyed her for about two weeks. It is such a shame that anonymous messages are allowed.

    • Rebecca Cusey

      Oh. Poor girl. I’m so sorry. I hope she’s better. Thanks for pointing that out. It’s certainly something to follow up on.

      • shanay

        um and also this new message app called kik. someone asked me for a nude photo on this i blocked them straight away. i think they got it from my instagram please write an aritcle about this

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  • Amy Mac

    Loved this post so much, it inspired me to write down our “house rules” for Instagram: http://www.amymacpr.blogspot.com/2013/05/7-rules-for-instagram-and-kids.html

  • Jenn

    Can I give you a huge, big hug??? ‘Cause I’m a teen and have been badgered on by so many adults on how I’m a failure because my generation is obsessed with self-love and selfies–and the only selfies I take are silly ones for my mom! (I am the family’s photographer and she asks for at least one photo of proof that I was there) And while I’m glad adults are taking an interest, this interest is more damaging for me than it is helpful for those who need it (no one likes being told they’re an absolute failure). So, thank you for giving my peers a voice! Also, I always keep my mom involved in my social media undergoings (even when I get mad at her), and the only thing she hasn’t read is my blog (that I have numerous Christian friends reading to keep me in check on). Though mom and I will get mad at each other, I’d rather have her there to keep me on the right track rather than messing up online where the history can never fully be erased.(:

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/tinseltalk Rebecca Cusey

      Big hug right back at you, Jenn. I think you kids are going to be just fine. No worries. (Or at least not much). Thanks for the comment and for being such a great young woman.

  • Linda

    What a thoughtful and insightful article. Thank you so much. My husband and I were just sitting down with our 11 year old daughter when she informed us that “everybody in her class” except her has an Instagram account. While not everyone does, I believe that most of her peers at school do have accounts. We were discussing it, but neither her father nor I know much about it…just enough to be scared. I LOVE this article as it addresses so many of our concerns – and points out what we have difficulty coming to terms with – that social media is not going away. Thank you for the wise and practical advise you offer, the concerns you bring up that we would not have thought of. It is a gift to find what we need when we weren’t even sure what we were looking for.

    • Rebecca Cusey

      Thank you for your kind comment. Sarah really nailed this one. She’s very insightful.

  • shanay

    Well im 12 year old girl on instagram. im starting to think instagram is dangerous. today i searched the word kik in the hashtag box and i saw mostly mens private part. im like are you seriouse y cant instagram have a system re vewing the photos and videos before posting them! this really scard me and i put my kik on instagram this staranger kiked me asking me for a nude picture i blocked tht person on kik! i emediatly took my kik of of instagram! i think i might delete my account its not safe!!!Im not a parent but i dont recomment this for kids.

    • Heather Ann

      Why are you reading a website like this when you are only 12 years old? When I was 12, I was playing Barbies and tag and having sleepovers.

      • Sydney

        Heather,
        The world is a different place than it was for you when you were 12. Instead of comparing your reality to hers, why not commend her for being present and aware of the dangers of Instagram? She is faced with a whole array of issues you never had to contend with when you were her age- maybe we should be more encouraging and affirm good behavior. And maybe it’s a good thing she isn’t playing with a doll that puts ridiculous expectations on young girls about their body.

  • Krista Gilbert

    I LOVE this post! I’ll be following you. I’ve been leading a group of girls for 4 years now and we are doing an “identity in Christ” series. Great thoughts! I hadn’t really thought through the role of social media in quantifying their popularity….

  • Celesta

    Great article!! Another thought- as adults respect the privacy of those minors whose pics you post. As a user of social media, I really enjoy seeing pics of the children of my friends, cousins, etc. It is wonderful that we can maintain connections. Just remember that the cute little baby whose naked pic you just posted will be a grown man or woman before you know it. I really thought about this a whole lot when I was mortified by seeing the youtube montage of the reactions of children when their parents told them that they (the parents) had eaten all of the Halloween candy.


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