Tweens and Instagram: How to Do It Right

Do you, as a parent, get involved when a feed you're following through your child looks like a modern day? Instagram is today's digital diary with one big difference -- everyone CAN read it and you can't throw it away.
04/01/2013 11:26am ET | Updated June 1, 2013
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FILE - In this Monday, April 9, 2012, file photo, Instagram is demonstrated on an iPhone, in New York. Instagram, the popular photo-sharing service that Facebook bought this year, is the target of a storm of outrage on Twitter and other sites after the company announced Monday, Dec. 17, 2012 a change in its user agreement that hinted that it might use shared photos in ads. (AP Photo/Karly Domb Sadof, File)

When the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary happened in December, my mom called me and asked, "Are you going to talk to the kids about it?" I knew they would find out about it and I planned to talk to them, but before my wife and I could formulate a plan, I heard my daughter from the back seat of the car: "Dad, what happened in Connecticut?" Radio is off. "Where did you see that, honey?" I asked. "Instagram," she replied.

Every day, I stand up and tell Fortune 100 brands that they aren't in control over their messages. Whatever they say or communicate about their brands is free to be picked apart in social media. Why, therefore, I thought my 9-year old-was any different, I have no idea. A quick Google search of the term "social media and parenting" returns 295 million results with sources from NPR and Forbes to Facebook and WebMD. However, a lot of that content covers Twitter, Facebook and "tween" involvement, not Instagram and not kids younger than 10.

Instagram seems innocent enough and that may be the reason why younger kids are flocking to it -- pictures and memes, fun filters and little hearts to like things.

When my daughter asked to be on Instagram, we saw it as something she could earn (which she did) and, frankly, it was a way to keep her at bay on texting for a while. She wasn't asking about Facebook or Twitter. Facebook isn't cool for kids ("my parents and grandparents are on it") and Twitter doesn't seem as exciting -- yet.

We laid down only a few ground rules in a way she would understand. First, dad was going to follow her, so anything she posts on Instagram, she has to be comfortable saying to my face or sharing with me in person. Second, if I saw something I thought was inappropriate, it would result in a penalty: I get the iTouch for a couple of days and she'd face an Instagram ban. Finally, she had to have a private profile and I could pop quiz her on her followers anytime I wanted. Anyone she accepted but didn't really know got blocked. "Somebody from dance class" was not acceptable.

That was all we did and so far, it has worked very well. This was before the great "iPhone contract" that went viral a little while ago, but it was in the same spirit.

Realistically, as we know, social media isn't always fun and games. What do you do when a 10-year-old writes #f*ckingcool in a post? Do you, as a parent, get involved when a feed you're following through your child looks like a modern day Mean Girls? What will you do the first time you see a Rihanna nip slip picture? Our parents asked themselves the same questions. Should I read her diary? Do I look through his drawers? Instagram is today's digital diary with one big difference -- everyone CAN read it and you can't throw it away.

That last sentence is important, so let's say it again. Everyone can read it and you can't throw it away. The day after Sandy Hook, I was on my daughter's feed and I saw that she had posted a picture of the shooter and that she "hated him." Her heart was in the right place, but we still deemed it inappropriate. We sat her down and talked to her about remembering the victims and ignoring the shooter and the terrible things he had done. She got it and we took the post down, but for anyone who had seen it, kids or parents, it was too late.

The bottom line is that this is new territory for everyone. Don't overthink it, practice common sense:

1. Know the password. Always.

2. Follow them. If you aren't on Instagram and your kid is, that's a problem.

3. Have a sliding scale of severity that guides how you act. #youstink is kids being kids. #sof*ckingcool is not.

4. Don't call another kid out on his/her feed if something they did is inappropriate. If you know the parent, go that route. If not, talk to your kid and see how they react -- do they know it's over the line?

5. Let them see your feed and make sure what you post follows the same rules.

6. Remind them that what they say can't be taken back.

7. Read #6 again.

8. Start to expose them, carefully, to Facebook. They didn't buy Instagram for nothing (actually, they bought it for $1B). They will get more and more alike.

Done right, Instagram is a playful communication tool for tweens too old for LeapFrog. They set goals for their number of followers because they are as self-indulgent as we are. They create fun photo challenges and they mostly write nice things about each other.

Just remember that the digital revolution we are experiencing puts a tremendous amount of power in the hands of our kids. It can make them seem more ready than they really, truly are. As was told to Spiderman: "With great power comes great responsibility." #payattention