How Concerned Should Parents Be About Instagram?

Last updated on April 3rd, 2021 at 03:02 pm

The most popular social media app used by kids is YouTube, followed by Instagram. Owned by Facebook, its popularity has been steadily on the rise, as Facebook continues to work towards attracting a younger audience.

So, what should parents be concerned about when it comes to Instagram? Do you know what problems can exist online? Cyberbullying is the most commonly known problem for being online, but it’s hardly the only one. It may not even be the most serious one.

Below, I will discuss the potential risks as I see them when it comes to using Instagram.

What the Numbers Mean:

The numbers / ratings represent the likelihood that you will see the risky behavior occur within this app.

  • Rating < 5 is minimal risk and is highly unlikely to occur on the platform, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t happen. Most apps have some risk to them in all of the areas, but specific apps have a greater tendency for it to happen either by the features that the apps have or from sheer volume of use by kids.
  • A rating of 5-6 should concern parents, but not overly so. Few apps may rate less than 5 on areas of concern, but most have at least rating of 5-6. That goes true for apps that kids and adults use. Basically what it means is that the possibility of an issue coming up is possible, but not overly so.
  • A rating of 7 or 8 is problematic. Not only should parents be concerned that the behavior might happen, they should be prepared for when it will happen. It may not even by something that their child does deliberately. Many predators hunt for children on apps that they know kids will be likely to use and kids often send inappropriate content to each other without asking if it’s okay first. The problems in question may happen often or may be of a serious enough nature that apps with multiple ratings of this high should be considered high risk to parents who wish to keep their kids safe online.
  • A 9 or 10 rating is extremely concerning as that behavior is very likely – almost a certainty! It also involves issues that should be of extreme concern to parents, such as sextortion and child pornography. I’m not about to tell you how to parent your child, only to give advice. However, for any app that actually received a rating of 10 for one or more concerns, that’s an app that I will not let my own child use.

Catfishing (9 out of 10)

Like most social media sites, there is little, if any verification that the person using the account is who they say that they are. As this video shows, it is all too easy to pretend to be someone else online and just as easy to use it to trick others. It can go much farther than you might expect, as in the case of Notre Dame football star, Manti Te’o. Back in 2013, he was tricked into believing that he was in a romantic relationship with a woman he’d never even met!

Cyberbullying (8 out of 10)

The potential for cyberbullying exists anywhere, even on LinkedIn, believe it or not. With Instagram, it can often come from pictures that the person posted which were meant to be silly or sexy. Body shaming is pretty common in cases like this on Instagram.

In other cases, it can come from online games, such as “Hot or Not” and “Smash or Pass”, where a collage of people is posted and others indicate if they think specific people are attractive or not. Typically, the collage includes a picture of someone that the initial poster expects will be widely panned by others to entice others to participate.

Language (8 out of 10)

There is virtually no filter on what people say on social media platforms and Instagram is no exception. This can include vulgarity and even hate speech. Companies like Instagram may try to catch/eliminate hate speech, but overall, there is much that gets missed or intentionally left up on the site.

In the United States, Article 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 has become a hot topic of late. Essentially, it prevents social media companies from being held liable for what others post on their sites, declaring that while they host the content, they aren’t responsible for it. Other countries have similar laws on the books.

Nudity (8 out of 10)

Online nudity is something that I’ve been very concerned about and Instagram is one of the leading examples of why. In a previous article for Pediatric Safety, I explained more about what social media companies will allow and while there are some guidelines, there are plenty of accounts that post pictures and videos that most parents would probably not want their kids to see.

Many adult actors/actresses and lingerie companies have Instagram accounts that push those boundaries. Some even break them. Often, especially in the case of the adult entertainment industry, they use Instagram as a means of attracting people to another site where full nudity is allowed, often for a fee. Similar to language issues discussed above, there is just too much content and pictures are harder search for using technology than text to find inappropriate content.

Privacy (6 out of 10)

Most social media sites allow users to block specific people who troll or harass people. Instagram is one of the sites that allows users to block everyone, so that the account holder has to choose to let people see their account. Instagram calls that setting an account to “Private”. It’s a great feature that more people need to use if they want to limit what others see.

Sexting (7 out of 10)

While probably not the app of choice for sexting, it certainly has the potential for being used this way. That’s certainly true if they wish to include images that they wish to have seen by many people. The reason why this didn’t get a higher rating is because Instagram isn’t really the best app for direct messages between two people, but it is still a place where people can post racy images, as I mentioned above in the section that discusses nudity.

Sextortion (7 out of 10)

Once someone posts an image online that incudes intimate content, they open themselves up for sextortion – blackmail of a digital, sexual nature. Combined with being catfished, the video below is a very realistic example of how sextortion starts. I frequently show this video when I speak at schools or with parents’ groups and the looks I see in the audience never cease to surprise me.

Several years ago, a photographer from New York City caused a major stir when he took racy images, mainly from people’s Instagram accounts and turned them into pieces of art, which he sold in galleries for serious amounts of money without asking for permission. The courts determined that he didn’t need to ask for their permission or compensate them because of what is known as “fair use” laws.

If this can happen, then it’s not too hard to see how easily others might be able to use similar images for sextortion. While very illegal, if someone makes such posts, it opens them up to the possibility of sextortion later. The problem is that if the other person has already downloaded the image and the initial poster deletes it, it’s too late to stop someone from using the image against them. The best solution to this is to never post/send such pictures under any circumstances.

Stalking (8 out of 10)

As it relates to social media, stalking has two areas of concern: online and offline and they are more closely related than you might expect.

Privacy settings, as mentioned above, can help, by helping keep unwanted visitors from seeing what your kids post. Note that I said, helping, not eliminating/stopping. Nothing is foolproof when it comes to preventing social media posts from being seen by unwanted eyes. Nothing.

Even without online interaction, when someone has access to what an Instagram user posts, they can see what they’re doing by simply looking at their posts. This is pretty common between romantic partners after they break up. Even if one person severs the relationship on Instagram, unless their account is set to private, there is nothing stopping the other person from creating another Instagram account and seeing what they post (see above, Catfishing).

Viruses (4 out of 10)

Instagram posts themselves rarely have links in them. That’s because Instagram does not support live links in posts. If a link is included on a post, viewers need to copy/paste it into a web browser and most people simply won’t do that. What can happen though, is a live link can be part of the user’s profile. Posts then indicate that there is a link in the profile for people who wish to “see more” than what they’re seeing on a single post. That post can be to anywhere and it can download virus/malware onto a device.

Bottom Line

What does all this mean? Overall Instagram’s scores seemed pretty high. The fact is they were, and many apps that are popular with kids may look similar. Digging into the details is where you’ll see the subtle differences that will help you, as parents, determine where you need to focus in order to keep your kids safe. When it comes to Instagram, there are some basic principles that all users, but especially kids, should follow:

  1. Trust, but verify – Be wary of what you share with people online and who you accept to follow you on Instagram. Start by setting your Instagram account to private. Whenever possible, confirm off of the app if someone requests to follow you; making sure that they really are who they claim to be.
  2. Assume that whatever you post on Instagram will be seen by everyone, not just the people who have access to seeing your posts. There are many different ways that can sidestep privacy settings, so while they are a good first step, they should not be assumed to be 100% safe.
  3. Never follow links posted by people on Instagram, even if they are your friends. They may have been duped into sharing a link that introduces a virus. Only links from well-known, reputable sources should be followed.

By following these simple guidelines, Instagram can be a fun app to use. For additional information on how to protect yourself and your children on Instagram, check out Instagram’s Help Center.

If you enjoyed this article, please be sure to check back here, as I plan on reviewing other popular apps used by kids using this same method. You can also check out all of my articles here on Pediatric Safety by visiting my profile and complete list of articles.

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About the Author

Joe Yeager is the founder of Safety Net of PA, LLC and has been a cybersafety advocate for several years. He is also an adjunct professor at Thomas Jefferson University. It was after his own daughter came across inappropriate content online that he became involved in helping others in the area. He is certified by the US Centers for Disease Control in Bullying Prevention and is the cyberbullying advisor to Fifty Shades of Purple against Bullying. He is also the author of #DigitalParenting- A Parent's Guide to Social Media, Cyberbullying &Online Activity which was chosen as an Editor’s Pick in April 2016. Joe is a member of the PedSafe Expert team

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