Instagram says banning teens from the app puts them at risk of 'social marginalisation'

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

Instagram has warned parents that not allowing their kids to use the app could result in "social marginalisation", stating that "wise use is better than no use" for teenagers.

"Even if a parent bans all social media, his or her child's photo and other information can be posted by friends via their accounts,"  a Tips for Parents guide on the photo sharing app's website reads.  

"And there's a risk of social marginalisation for kids who are not allowed to socialise in this way that's now so embedded in their social lives."

The guide, which was compiled in conjunction with mental health organisation Headspace, also includes information about responsible sharing on social media, advice for teens about what to do if they are being harassed online and a list of the most common questions parents have about their children using Instagram. 

"It might help to know that all this is just an extension of their 'real world' social lives, giving them new chances to hang out with their friends during in-between moments—from waiting for a ride to catching up between classes... But you could talk with your kids about the wisdom of keeping their Instagram experience anchored in their offline life and friendships."

Parenting expert and speaker Martine Oglethorphe of The Modern Parent agrees that feeling isolated is a real concern for young people given we generally "like to hang out where our mates are". But she says that is not enough of a reason alone for parents to allow their teenagers access to social media.

"As parents we need to make the decision as to whether our children are ready, cognitively and socially and emotionally, to deal with all that these playgrounds will expose them to," she says.

"It's a decision that I believe age alone does not necessarily answer (there are some adults using these platforms pretty badly) and so we want to make sure that when they start out it is when we believe they have that development and awareness to think critically about all they do."

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Ms Oglethorpe notes that we need to be paying close attention to what our kids are doing online so we can teach and guide them.

"We also want to be sure that whilst they can use social media to connect and share, they also need to find plenty of other avenues to shine that don't involve likes and comments."

Concern about the tips comes as Instagram releases a new parents' guide on their Well-Being Centre to keep teens safe on the popular network - and to manage some of the stresses of life as a digital natives. 

The guide introduces parents to features such as the "You've completely caught up" function, which alerts users to the fact that they've seen all their friends' content since they last logged on to the app.

"Teens can feel pressure to see and interact with all of their friends' posts," the document reads. "When they scroll through every post on their feed since they last logged on, they'll see a message that says 'You've completely caught up'. This way, they'll know that they're up to date on everything their friends and communities are up to."

Mums and dads are also taken through privacy settings, how to manage and filter comments, ways to monitor time spent on the app and how to block users.

The document also lists a number of questions, devised in conjunction with social media and education expert Ana Homayoun, to help parents start a conversation with their kids. "Our intention is that you use these questions to learn more about how your teen is using Instagram, and to ensure that they're having a positive experience on the platform," it reads.

  1. What do you like about Instagram?
  2. What do you wish I knew about Instagram?
  3. What are the top five Instagram accounts that you enjoy following?
  4. What are some of the things you think about before you post something on Instagram?
  5. If you have multiple Instagram accounts, what do you share in each account?
  6. How do likes and comments affect how you feel about a post?
  7. Do you know your followers? (If your teen has a private account, ask them how they decide who follows them).
  8. What do you do when someone you don't know tries to contact you via direct message?
  9. How do you feel about the amount of time you spend online?
  10. Have you ever felt uncomfortable with something you saw or an experience you had online?
  11. What would you do if you saw someone being bullied on Instagram? (Do you know about the reporting tools and the offensive comment filter on Instagram?)

 A recent study released by the Pew Research centre found that 70 per cent of teens use Instagram, with 45 per cent of teens admitting they are online on a "near-constant basis".

In a video released with the new guide, Instagram's Chief Operating Officer Marne Levine explains, "I work at Instagram, and I'm also a parent. That's the lens I bring into the office each day, just like many other parents who work here. We know the social media landscape will continue to change, and we're committed to being here every step of the way to make sure parents and their teens have the tools they need to make the choices that are right for them."

Ms Oglethorpe welcomes the new parents' guide, adding that many mums and dads - even instagram users themselves - don't know about  many of the safety features. "I think anything that gives parents more information about where their children are hanging out can certainly be a good thing," Ms Oglethorope says.

"When I speak about the ability to modify comments, prevent certain words from ever appearing in your comment feed and other ways Instagram are trying to protect kids wellbeing, overwhelming no one is aware these exist. And this is both parents and the children that are using the platforms."

But she cautions that while alerting parents to what is out there can be helpful, it doesn't ensure young people will remain safe and supported.

"Kids are still being exposed to porn, bullying, self harm and all manner of content on Instagram as well as all manner of people so we can't forget that it is still a social media that requires cognitive thinking and brain development that is very often simply not developed enough in young people."

Earlier this year, an encouraging study published in the The Journal of Research on Adolescencefound that teens are making good decisions and thinking very carefully about the content they're posting online. They're also heeding safety warnings, too.

"It seems we have at least taught enough 'digital citizenship' that many kids understand the concept (albeit a false one) of a 'digital footprint' (it's not a footprint that might wash or be blown away it's a tattoo, relatively permanent unless you go through a long removal process) and the idea of putting your best self forward online," Psychologist Jocelyn Brewer said at the time. "Stopping to think about what you post is again a 101 lesson that we hope is being absorbed."

Echoing the advice issued by Instagram, Ms Brewer also raised the importance of having an ongoing dialogue with kids about the risks, benefits and and impact of using social media.

"Conversations and using examples is the best way we can help teach kids about the impacts of posts and the various ways they're perceived," she said. "To a large degree it's a developmental thing, so you can't rush it, but you can lay foundations through communication and teaching critical thinking skills."

You can download a copy of the new Instagram parents' guide here