I almost took an Instash*t this weekend when I discovered that my kids were on this popular photo sharing program and were exchanging images with more than 100 of their friends followers on a Twitter-like feed.
I'm not a technophobe parent, but I do have some pretty clear rules and one of them is that my 12- and 13-year-old daughters are not allowed on Facebook. FB is my adult swim time. Plus, it's a big responsibility and I'm not sure they're ready to wade into the deep end of social networking just yet.
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Well, they didn't get into the National Junior Honor Society by being dim bulbs. My daughters technically abided by mom's rules and steered clear of FB by quietly downloading the free Instagram app like 50 million other users.
There's a reason Mark Zuckerberg snatched up this 3-year-old app two months ago for $1 billion (and why it's so appealing to kids): It's much easier to use on smartphones and mobile devices than FB and it has its own built-in social networking abilities so users don't need to bother with FB.
Although Instagram claims it's for ages 13 and up, the only information required to sign up is an email address and a username.
Blissfully buried in my FB, Tumblr, Twitter and Pinterest worlds, I noticed some of my friends sharing Instagram photos on their FB feeds, but I hadn't paid much attention or checked out the app yet. Then a father texted my husband last weekend and asked him about Instagram and why our kids were on it.
I won't bore you with the series of tongue lashings conversations that followed, but after spending a few hours checking out the accounts of my daughters and their 100+ friends from elementary and middle school, this is what I learned:
Girls this age like to post photos of themselves with lips pursed, eyes wide and their hair pushed up (WTF?). They like to repeat memes about The Hunger Games and One Direction. They post a lot of cute kitten and koala bear pics, fart jokes and photos of their friends' feet and braided hair.
Among my oldest daughter's posts were mostly images of her math project and Josh Hutcherson (not necessarily in that order).
There were a few alarming finds, such as the cute teenage boy in Puerto Rico who was following my youngest daughter's account (he's been deleted) and the screen grabs of my daughters and their friends talking to each other on Skype (which is a whooooole other problem and world that is happening in real time after unsuspecting parents all over Miami have slumbered off to sleep). But for the most part, this was innocent stuff.
The end result is that I have joined the Instagram world and have agreed to let my kids keep their accounts with certain controls in place.
Maybe I'm a naïve pushover. Maybe I'll regret it. But for now I see this as part of the leash-lengthening – or is it hang-rope? – process as I slowly let me kids assume more independence and responsibilities. This nail-biting series of exercises starts and stops on their demonstrated abilities to handle themselves in a mature and savvy manner.
For better and worse, the Internet has become part of the later years of their childhood and I'm strapping myself in for the ride. I'm not a parent who draws up contracts with my kids or installs safety-ware on all the computers in our house. What I do believe in is open communication and no-wiggle-room repercussions for unacceptable behavior and violations of the rules I've set.
As part of our Instagram foray, my daughters have to let me follow them. Like the texts on their cell phones, I reserve the right to spot check their activity. They have to make their accounts private, which prohibits everyone but their approved friends from seeing their photos. They can't use the Geotagging feature, which allows followers to see their location. There can be no hint of nudity or embarrassing situations in their photos. There can be nothing hateful or hurtful to other human beings.
As a friend of mine explained to her daughters: Don't post anything you wouldn't want the college of your dreams to see. Or your grandmother.
They know they must play by my rules or lose their cell phones and their computer access, which won't be so hard to do now that summer is upon us and they don't need to go online for schoolwork.
For now, I won't be monitoring them on statigram, a tracker program that sends alerts to your email address every time there's activity on a certain account. If they break the rules, I doubt I'll resort to public humiliation tactics like the Houston mom who earned her 15 minutes of online fame by posting her 12-year-old daughter holding a sign that read, "Since I want to take pics holding liquor, I am obviously NOT ready for social media and will be taking a hiatus until I learn what is and isn't appropriate to post. Bye-Bye."
This is unchartered territory for parenting. And it's exhausting. There are new apps popping up every day to worry about. (Did you hear about Snapchat, the new, sexting-friendly app that allows users to take a photo and share it with someone for up to 10 seconds before it's permanently deleted?!)
I learned a lot while checking out Instagram and what Internet safety experts think of kids using it (most discourage it). But what became clear to me as I cruised through the pics of my daughters and their friends is this: As parents, we're are all in this together. We may have different rules and different ideas about what's allowed or acceptable. But we have to be each others' allies and eyes in this ever-changing virtual world that our kids are growing up in.
So to the father who alerted us to the Instagram scandal in our house, thank you. The next app alert is on me.