What parents need to know about Instagram

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 Photo: Getty

If there's anything you can say about kids' behaviour online, it's that trends move quickly.

One minute kids are playing in a club for penguins, the next they're sending captioned pictures which self-destruct on something called Snapchat .

Right now, Instagram is in vogue. But, as an app which allows your child to take pictures of themselves, identify their location, and post both of these things publicly, it's no wonder parents are a bit concerned about the risks their kids could be exposing themselves to when using it.

Instagram has combined with national youth mental health foundation headspace to release the Parent's Guide to Instagram. Here is what you need to know to keep your kids safe when using the app.

What is Instagram?

Instagram is a smartphone application for sharing photos and short (less than 15-second) videos. It allows users to post photos and videos they take on a smartphone, edit them using filters, and post them on the app.

Users follow other users, and the photos and videos from these users they follow appear in their feed. While most kids on Instagram follow their friends, many also follow celebrities, brands and lifestyle (food, fitness, fashion, etc.) accounts.

How old do you need to be to have an account?

Users are supposed to be aged 13 years or older, but the application doesn't ask users to specify their age, and primary school students have been known to use the service (with and without their parents' permission).

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However, if Instagram are notified of an account run by someone under 13, they close it. Celebrity publicist Roxy Jacenko learnt this the hard way when her account for two-year-old daughter Pixie Curtis was shut down in July last year (she managed to open a new one after explaining that she was the one doing the posting, not Pixie).

Why do kids love Instagram?

The stats show Facebook is declining in popularity amongst teenagers today, with an estimated 11 million fewer young people on the site than there were in 2011. With Facebook's decline, applications like Instagram and Snapchat are where it's at.

Caitlin Wood from cyberbullying awareness group PROJECT ROCKIT says young people "love any app that bridges the gap between school and the evenings, weekends and holidays".

"Young people love that Instagram gives them the oppurtunity to create a visual diary that can be posted online and linked over other various social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Flickr."

Who can see a child's photos on Instagram?

Unlike on Facebook, there are no default protections in place for children using the application.

This means that viewers of the user's photos depends solely on their privacy settings.

A user's account is set as public by default. This means anyone can see the user's photos, either by looking at the user's account directly, 'following' the user so that the user's photos appear in their feed (which displays the photos taken by all of the accounts they follow), or by finding them when searching Instagram with a hashtag the user has tagged it with.

Alternatively, a user can set their account to private. This means that their followers are pre-approved by the user, and their photos only appear in the searches of their followers.

In addition to regular posts, Instagram users are also able to send direct messages (photos and videos) to fellow users, regardless of whether or not they follow them. Direct messages from people the user follows are automatically available, although the user must approve messages from strangers before they can be viewed.

If my child's Instagram is on private, does that mean their information can only be accessed by people they know?

Not quite.

Even if your child's Instagram is on private, as the guide stresses to parents, the 'bio' page of their account (which features their profile picture, 150 characters of text and a 'follow' button) is still visible to the public.

It's important that you explain this to your children, because often that 150 character bio is written to contain information such as your child's school, sports club or dance studio, suburb, or circle of friends, which can easily identify your child to strangers.

Should I ban Instagram?

While some families introduce blanket bans on social media for their children, Wood says that, in her experience, it doesn't work.

"Total bans on such platforms are typically not the answer as this can often cause marginalisation amongst peers," she says.

"A general rule at PROJECT ROCKIT, a rule we share daily with the young people we work with, is to keep their accounts private, limiting the people who can view and comment to their friends and family."

What are some of the problems that arise when children are using Instagram?

Carly Wright from headspace says, for the most part, kids don't experience problems when using the app.

"The vast majority or interactions and behaviour on Instagram are positive," she says

Wright says the main problems headspace hears about are children sharing inappropriate photos that attract the wrong sort of attention or feeling upset about inappropriate comments on photos.

Like any social media app, Instagram can be used as a vehicle for cyberbullying.

When speaking to school students across Australia with PROJECT ROCKIT, Wood says she notices certain behaviours that are common in instances of cyberbullying on Instagram.

"Most often [the bullying] is through abusive comments, uploading photos that are an attempt to embarrass someone, or comments anonymously posted using fake accounts," she says.

What should parents do if their children are having problems?

Instagram's Mia Garlick says that the guide was created to show that parents don't need to be social media experts, but they do need to have a basic understanding of how apps work and, in particular, how apps' privacy settings work and how inappropriate content can be reported.

"Our rationale is simple," she says. "You don't need to know everything about an app to ask a few important questions."

"For example: Can you make your posts private? Can you report? Can you block someone who's bothering you easily? The answer to all of these questions on Instagram is 'yes'."

Wright says that the most important things parents can do is have knowledge about the app, and be prepared to start a conversation with their kids about its use.

"While they don't necessarily need their own account, it's important for parents to understand how the various social media platforms work, particularly privacy and reporting problems, so they can help to guide their child," she says.

"If a parent thinks there is a problem, they should be opening up a conversation with their son or daughter about what they're seeing on social media and encourage them to talk about how this impacts them."