I LOVE social media. Love it. Being able to share and connect no matter where life takes our family has kept me close to people I love that are miles and miles away. We are called to be leaven in the world, and I love seeing how Catholics can bring this action even into the space online. (Like this 4 minute video you really should watch right now with the sound up.)
But as parents, this instant connection and availability comes at a cost and a huge responsibility. Most of us take great care in monitoring what comes through the doors of our homes in order to protect our children from outside influences that could harm them in any way. Do you also check the “doors” of media devices in your home? How about the apps each person is using in the home? Do you know exactly what can get into your home through the family’s social media accounts?
One app I want to chat about is Instagram. It seems pretty harmless on the surface – sharing your story through photos, following only those you choose, putting fun filters on cute photos. But what about the other side of Instagram? Are you aware that porn can easily be accessed through it? And that you don’t have to go looking for it to be exposed to it while using Instagram? I want to share with you what’s on Instagram and why you, as a Catholic parent, need to know all about it.
PRIVACY AND WHAT OTHERS CAN SEE
If you don’t use Instagram but your child does, it might be worth downloading the app and following along so you know exactly what your teen is using (and I say teen because no one under 13 should be using Instagram. Not only is it part of the user agreement, but Instagram is not a totally safe place for most teens and adults let alone children.). If you’re a regular Instagram user, you should know most of this, but it’s worth reading through and double checking your teen knows as well.
Okay, so what is privacy like on Instagram? Unless you have a private account, everything shared on Instagram can be viewed by anyone in the world. To make an account private, click on the little circle on the bottom right corner of the main screen on the app (the photos below shows what you’ll see), next hit the top right settings button, and then toggle the privacy option.
It’s good to know that if you link your Instagram account with Facebook, any time you share a photo it will post to Facebook as well and all your Facebook friends can see the photo even if they don’t follow you on Instagram. (You can link to other accounts in the same screen where you found the privacy toggle button.)
If your child is on Instagram, take the following privacy precautions:
- The username, profile photo, name, and bio are all viewable to the public no matter what privacy settings you use. Make sure their account is set to private and they don’t use real names for the username or name. Any bio info should be general and not target them as a minor (i.e. don’t let them create a bio like “baseball legend – RHS class of 2018”). It might even be a good idea to have them use a random photo for the profile rather than an image showing their face. This is what a private Instagram account looks like:
- Check their account and what it looks like to the public – check the profile picture, username, and bio. Is there anyway someone could gather where you live? That it’s a teen girl or guy? What school they might go to?
- Go through the email they’re using, passwords, names, etc. and check that any info, if hacked, wouldn’t put them at major risk.
If you don’t follow your teen on Instagram and have access to their account, make it happen so you can easily monitor what they are putting out their for others to see (this goes for other social media accounts as well if you allow them).
EASILY ACCESSIBLE PORN
(Warning: I share screen shots of some questionable photos found on Instagram. They should be ok for most adults to see, but if you are easily tempted or have struggled with impurity before, please use discretion and skip this post or have a friend summarize it for you if needed. I also ask that if you share or pin this article to double check that the highlighted image is NOT one of the following.)
Okay, this is the big one you really want to read all the way through. There is porn on Instagram. A LOT of it. They have one of the most lax community guideline enforcements among the main social media sites. Which means even if something’s not technically allowed on Instagram, you can still run into it or find images that push that boundary.
Having a secure and private account and only following people you know and trust does NOT protect you from what I’m about to share. This information is a normal part of Instagram – just by opening the app you could come across it. (Summer 2016 UPDATE: Some of the search problems and trending issues aren’t as insidious after a recent update. I haven’t noticed quite as much objectionable content popping up. BUT it is still there so it’s worth knowing.)
Here are four main ways you can be exposed to porn or lewd images on Instagram (even with a private account):
- Trending Posts. Every single Instagram account has a default screen come up when you hit the search bar icon on the bottom of the screen. Right under the video highlight bar is the trending section – this is where porn or other questionable images can pop up at random. The point is to highlight popular hashtags being used on Instagram. But it means that literally anything out there can show up right on your screen no matter how private your account is. So if June comes and #bikinibottoms is trending, you can guess what kind of images might show up here. There is no way to change this feature, remove it, or mess with what thumbnails are highlighted. Just by using the app you are at the mercy of whatever is trending and other people are posting. Below are some examples of what came up on my screen just by clicking the trending bar. It doesn’t matter that I’ve never searched for anything like this, or that I was using a private account on one. Since it’s popular on Instagram it’s popping up. You can see that while these don’t technically count as nudity, it could compromise an innocent mind in a heartbeat. Also, anyone who’s ever struggled with porn might have trouble with them.
- Explore Posts. This is a little less insidious depending on your network on Instagram. It shows recent photos from users you don’t follow based on people do you follow. The danger here is the gap between knowing who you’re following and then who they might be following and being at the mercy of whatever the third party posts. For the most part, I only see Catholic, mom, baby, and food related posts in my Explore section. But I could easily see far worse if I were to follow Cosmo magazine, for example. Consider the type of people you’re teen is following and what could possibly be associated with that to know what could appear here.
- Hashtags. All public posts with a hashtag are findable by anyone on Instagram by clicking on that hashtag. What’s the danger here? Just to see what might come up, I typed in #highschool to my search bar. Some quasi questionable images scattered my screen and when I clicked on one this is what I was connected to (photo below). I didn’t click any further but by the username I think it’s safe to assume if I had I would have been instantly exposed to pornographic images. So imagine a kid innocently looking for #highschool friends and how they could easily be exposed to porn in a matter of three clicks. This is common on Instagram – a lot of regular hashtags that shouldn’t be associated with porn, that your teen might even be using, other people are using like this.
- Tagging. Anyone anywhere on Instagram can tag someone, whether the account being tagged is private or public. So while they might not be able to see your posts, they can tag you in their own photo. The danger here is that if a kid is tagged by a spammer and innocently clicks on the photo to see who tagged them, it could easily lead them to an account like the example above. You can remove a tag, but you have to click on the post to do it. Another way is tagging someone in the comments of a photo. I’ve been tagged by spammers more than once. The notification shows up with a thumbnail just like if you were tagged in the photo and so you’ll see whatever picture you’re tagged in there.
THE FILTER LIE
Finally, this last point could be a subjective experience, but I feel it’s worth noting since we are talking about protecting our teens and I believe this is important to bring up.
Let me start with an example. See this photo?
This is my living room where I was finishing up some laundry. This is a heavily filtered and cropped photo. If I were to put it on Instagram I might caption it “ahhh! towels folded – winning!” (Yes, two whole towels. Magical, isn’t it?) Without sharing anymore details, it might come across that my entire living room or even home is this tidy and clean. Or it might make the onlooker assume I’ve done all my laundry and I’m just gonna kick back with a mimosa next.
But here’s the rest of the picture you don’t see and without the pretty little filters…
Ummm, not so magical. You can see while it isn’t technically a lie (the towels are neatly folded and they are clean), I have a lot more work to do before I’m done. And my towels aren’t that shiny. And my couch is a little crooked and dirty. And I have stained cloth diapers on the pile that need to be set out in the sun. And I probably need to vacuum. And the truth? None of this is bad. It’s just life. But Instagram makes it easy to crop out the undesirables and filter out the imperfections to create a packaged deal that I call the filter lie.
How would this all translate to a young girl? She looks in the mirror and sees the full picture. There are imperfections but it’s life and it’s normal. She goes on Instagram and sees a friend’s perfectly filtered photo showing no imperfections. Do you think her first reaction will be to see the truth? Will she really believe it’s just a one dimensional filtered photo that’s most likely only shows part of the truth of what’s really going on behind the camera? Or will she compare? Will she doubt her own worth and beauty? Will she feel not enough? Will she buy the filter lie?
Developmentally, teens are still figuring out who they are and how they fit in in this chaotic world. The filter lie can be a real danger because it has the ability to feed on insecurities and create a half truth that they can never measure up to. It’s the modern day form of photoshopped magazines.
I think it’s worth stating that this isn’t the hard fast rule on Instagram – a lot of people do share real beauty and honesty and goodness. But if you have a teen using the app, it might be worth deciding if you want them exposed to this filter lie. You know your teen best.
WHAT WE DO AS A FAMILY
My personal stance is that there’s no place for Instagram with my kids as they grow. We are pretty far off from having to worry about this, but I keep thinking of this great analogy I once heard – our children are like seeds that we are meant to water, feed, and protect. It would be foolishness to put a young sapling out into the harsh sun and elements with no protection whatsoever. The smart man creates a nurturing environment for the young tree so that it has all it needs to create strong healthy roots and someday bear fruit that will last. To me, protecting my children from the dangers of Instagram isn’t an over reach – it’s a logical way to protect them until they are strong enough to handle the storms of life on their own.
All in all, even though I love social media, as a parent I don’t think Instagram is that great of an app. There are a lot of little corners that make it easy to compromise innocence and virtue without trying all that hard. That’s a big deal to me as a Catholic parent. I still use it, but have been seriously considering deleting it all for the reasons in this post. My husband deleted his account and doesn’t even bother with it anymore.
What do you think? Do you or your kids to use Instagram? Why or why not? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!