What’s on Instagram and Why Catholic Parents Should Care

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.

Click on the bottom right circle thumbnail to get to this screen. Then click on the top right settings icon to get to privacy settings.
Click on the bottom right circle thumbnail to get to this screen. Then click on the top right settings icon to get to privacy settings.
Toggle the button to make the account private - when it's blue, it's set to private.
Toggle the button to make the account private – when it’s blue, it’s set to private.

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:

  1. 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:

    What a private account looks like on Instagram.
    What a private account looks like on Instagram.
  2. 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?
  3. 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):

  1. 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.
    image2-3
    This is what my screen looked like just by clicking on the search icon on the bottom of my screen. The first trending image is questionable.

    This came up just by clicking on the "See All" button on what's Trending. I never had to click on a actual hashtag or search for anything related to this.
    This showed up just by clicking on the “See All” button on what’s trending. The first image was bad enough to need censorship.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

    An image that came up by searching #highschool in my search bar.
    An image that came up by searching #highschool in my search bar.
  4. 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?

image1-3

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…

www.yellowpelican.net

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!

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8 comments

  1. What a great analogy with the folded towels. When I take pictures of my kids, I make them stand in front of a “clean” part of our house. 🙂

    Reply
  2. Great post and such an important topic. I also love Instagram, and have been thinking ahead to what we will do when my kids start wanting to join social media. For now, I keep very open lines of communication with my girls and talk about what can be risky on the web and media. They know we’ll have access to their accounts when the time comes. I’ve decided to keep my Instagram private, and my oldest is already very aware that I share family pictures. She often asks that I don’t share images of her, and I respect that. I’m glad she’s keeping her privacy safeguarded already, and hopefully by me respecting that instead of sharing her face all over, she’ll stay strong later on and keep her self filtered by not sharing too much online.

    Reply
    1. Angie @ Yellow Pelican March 10, 2016, 7:45 am

      Gina, I love that you’re already keep lines open between you and your children – that will go such a long way! The respect you’re giving your oldest by not sharing what she isn’t comfortable with is SUCH an amazing example of respect and using social media the right way.

      Reply
  3. Thank you for addressing this! I wish more parents cared to know this much about social media.

    A couple things that occurred to me:

    To cross-post on FB, I have to hit that under the “share” area where there’s also an option for Twitter and other stuff when I’m adding my caption. Not sure if that’s the same for everyone. But it doesn’t post it on FB too unless I hit that – even though the accounts are connected.

    There’s also the ability to private message on IG, which is another consideration for parents concerned about kids talking with creepy people online.

    I know it’s probably hard to judge what you would do when your kids are still too little for it to be applicable, but I wanted to know more about your philosophy about probably not allowing your kids on IG. I ask this because I’ve seen it completely backfire on some families when something is prohibited and the teen rebels.

    I’ve seen something like this within my family – teens posting things they shouldn’t on IG and talking with people they shouldn’t. But at least in the case I’m thinking of, prohibiting it makes it worse.

    It’s such a hard balance. How do we help young people learn how to use thing correctly? I want to be able to help people be “in the world but not of it”, to know about current events and apps so we can be relevant – but still protect innocence. Would love to hear your thoughts!

    Reply
    1. Angie @ Yellow Pelican March 10, 2016, 7:41 am

      Hi Gemma!

      Thanks for the note about sharing – I don’t think I explained that well enough. You do have to deliberately click share to get it on Facebook – but the same principle applies since anyone on your friend list can see that post even if they aren’t on Instagram.

      In response to your other question – I have young children, but I worked with teens for my entire career before becoming a stay at home parent. I’ll tell you this based on helping parents connect with their teens and evangelizing teens myself – the quote from St. John Bosco is absolutely true “if you get them to love you, they’ll follow you anywhere.”

      It is definitely possible to set these boundaries and have teens respect the boundaries. This blog post is written by a 19 year old and really insightful to your question: http://tolovehonorandvacuum.com/2014/02/why-do-teenagers-rebel/

      It takes the right combination of love, genuine mutual respect, and openness. If you come down hard as an authoritarian with no logical reasons and not open to discussion, I can guarantee most teens will rebel and you’ll create a rift in the relationship. But how about openly sharing the dangers? And explaining why you want them to avoid it? Then respectfully listening and answering their questions? Not fool proof, but most teens would respond really well to that. It’s important to remember to connect and treat them as the young adult they are becoming.

      I think it’s also vital to be the example. Teens aren’t naturally rebellious – they are just figuring out who they are and gaining independence. They know by then that respect isn’t given, it’s earned. The teens I’ve seen rebel are the ones that are actually really smart and insightful – they can see right through a fake and I would notice they responded poorly to the adults that had a chip on their shoulder. They had no respect for adults that believed they were more valuable since they were an adult or that were speaking something they weren’t living. I don’t speak for every teen in the world, but just as something to reflect on. I think we should worry less about “will they rebel if I set this very important and healthy boundary or rule” and more about “how can I connect with my kid and be the person they want to come to with all of life’s questions.”

      Reply
  4. I was on Instagram for about a year, and just deactivated my account. My five sons are grown, all in their 20’s and 30’s, so this wasn’t an issue when I was raising them. But it’s a tough place, even for adults. I was shocked one day to have been tagged by a creepy stranger in a comment; and when I clicked on one of the other names that had been tagged, it took me to someone’s graphically pornographib IG site. That very day, I decided I was done.

    I really feel for young parents these days. All this technology is just making it harder and harder to keep kids safe.

    Reply
    1. Angie @ Yellow Pelican March 23, 2016, 7:19 pm

      Your story makes me sick to my stomach – it is just way to easy to happen upon images that you can’t unsee on some of these apps. It’s definitely a new territory of parenthood that is difficult to navigate. Pray for all of us younger parents and our kids!

      Reply

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