Q: My 16 year old daughter is obsessed with Instagram and constantly taking pictures to share on the app. I recently discovered that she has two accounts…one of which she calls her “Finstagram” and says she only allows her closest friends to follow her (I follow her on her more “popular” account). While I understand it’s important for teens to be able to share things with their close friends, I’m concerned that her “Finstagram” isn’t really private, and I’ve heard stories about using it to cyberbully. Should I insist that she let me follow her on that account too?
~ PhotoMom, Burlington, MA
A: One of the key developmental tasks of adolescence, as your daughter moves from childhood to adulthood, is to establish autonomy – to find her identity apart from her parents and to connect with her peers as an individual. Her Finstagram account is one way in which she is trying out her independence from you and preferentially bonding with peers, a normal and desirable behavior as a teen. However, when this behavior occurs online, there are other factors to consider, such as privacy, safety, and digital citizenship. Your daughter, as smart as she is, has yet to develop executive functions such as impulse control and future thinking. In her youthful exuberance, she may post images or words on social media that can compromise her present reputation and her future opportunities.
Adults and teens understand the concept of privacy differently. Because of the normal autonomy-seeking of adolescence, your daughter and many teens define privacy as “what my parents shouldn’t see”, while parents, whose brain executive functions are more developed, understand privacy as protecting one’s identity and preserving one’s reputation. Many teens share passwords to their private social media accounts with friends and romantic partners as a sign of intimacy. When you speak with your daughter about Finstagram and social media, you can bridge the communication divide between your definitions of privacy by focusing your concerns about her well-being and her future. Remind her that Facebook, which owns Instagram, has allowed her to use its social media in return for having full access to everything she uploads and have the right to use her content in any way they wish.
While imagining a big, faceless corporation owning her posts may cause her to think twice, what is more likely to happen is that a friend may share her private information or images, either by mistake or through a falling out. I encourage kids to observe the “Grandma rule”. Only post what you want Grandma to see – because she can. When your daughter argues (correctly) that Grandma doesn’t know how to get on Finstagram, you can say, “You’re right… but your friends can and so can anyone they share with (and anyone they share with and…). Imagine with her who else can see her showing off her cute new bikini, or the cool party she went to where someone brought beer. Her friends’ parents may look over their shoulders, her friends might not always be careful or kind with what she says and shows, and college admissions offices are very sophisticated at finding and reviewing a candidate’s digital footprint. Remind her that, depending on who they are and what they seek to learn about her, different people interpret images differently, especially when posted online without context.
Rather than demanding access to her Finstagram account (which may make her feel you want to spy on her), offer your support and advice. Acknowledge that you have much to learn about Finstagram, social media, and the internet. Ask to sit beside her and learn how to navigate social media, allowing you to impart observations about human nature, good and bad, and how others might receive and respond to what is posted. Show her your desire to support and protect her, to be present for her, and to guide her to be mindful and masterful online, just as you are there for her in other aspects of her life.
Enjoy your media and use them wisely,