03/31/2014 12:42 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Spilled Milk : Contracting Instagram

If you've noticed a break since my last column it's because at my house we've been dealing with a medical crisis. Our oldest child recently turned 13 and like so many in this vulnerable demographic has suddenly contracted a confounding syndrome, best known among her peers by its street name: Instagram.

2014-03-28-SMInstagramLogo.jpgMany of you with teenagers have been experimenting with treatment options for some time. But as so often can be the case playing catch-up with a pandemic, I only began to educate myself once someone I love became afflicted.

For those of you whose families remain untouched, here's what I've learned: though originally diagnosed among adults with an interest in photography and new parents bent on flooding the world with baby pictures, Instagram now insidiously targets the young. Spread not by human contact but through cell phones, the Centers for Disease Control defines Instagram as "a viral app that allows users to snap photos, then instantly share them with millions of strangers, typically accompanied by captions and comments revealing such disturbing personal information as an inability to distinguish between 'you're' and 'your.' Advanced symptoms include an elevated presence of 'followers,' 'likes,' and -- particularly among younger female sufferers -- rashes of brightly-colored blotches called 'emojis.'"

According to the diagnostic Terms and Conditions of Instagram, for legal reasons no one under 13 should face exposure. But many parents fail to inoculate their younger children's phones, resulting in infections at earlier and earlier ages. A majority of students at our daughter's school now appear to carry the virus.

I would have posted a status update about all of this on Facebook, but it's been exhausting, and as anyone with Instagram will tell you, Facebook is dead. Over. A social media relic still in use only among the old and ridiculous (defined as anyone whose age is not prefixed by a 1).

The waning popularity of Facebook among the young won't come as a shock anyone who's ever slogged through the crisis of puberty. For teenagers, parents are the crisis. It's the job of teenagers to run screaming in the opposite direction of anything we enjoy or even vaguely advocate, be it Facebook or grapes. Were it possible to breathe something other than the same air their parents do, they would. Which probably explains the origins of pot.

Of course Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg saw all of this coming. Which is kind of what he does. Two years ago Zuckerberg recognized Instagram for what it was: an upstart threat to his brainchild. As the world's most terrifying emerging market -- hormonal, selfie-snapping teenagers -- began actively rejecting his Facebaby in favor of a newborn, Zuckerberg did what any protective father would: adopted. And with Facebook's $1 billion purchase of Instagram, established himself as the most excellent of parents -- far-sighted, brilliant and twisted.

When our oldest first mentioned Instagram a year ago ("I've got to have Instagram. All my friends have it."), we had to remind her she didn't even have a phone yet. She reminded us that she did not need to be reminded, retreated to her room and cranked up her music.

I was intrigued. Who asks for an app before they even have a phone? A quick Google search of Instagram pulled up an entire page of links extolling the revolutionary brilliance of this amazing photo-sharing network. All originating from Instagram's own website. A more pointed search -- "is Instagram safe for kids?" -- proved more revealing. I learned there are no parental controls on Instagram. It only takes a seconds-long keyword search for a child to access photos no parent would want them to see. When a user signs up for Instagram, by default all photos posted are public, meaning that if your kid fails to make the right clicks when signing up, any of Instagram's 100 million users can see all photos they post, anonymously follow them and send them messages. Even if your kid is responsible and respectful, others regularly use Instagram as a platform for publicly bullying, excluding and mocking their peers. All pictures posted have the capability of being tagged and traceable to the exact location where they were taken (your house, your kid's school).

This bothered me. As the father of an adolescent daughter, paranoia is my birthright.

Which is why, after Kelly and I agreed to let her have a cell phone a few months after her 12th birthday, we said no to Instagram. This news was greeted with a reaction more commonly seen in those who've just received a bullet to the chest. While applying triage, we pointed out that, as parents we were bound by federal law and Instagram's own user agreement, which explicitly state that no one under 13 may open an account. Our girl revived long enough to give us exactly the sort of response you might guess.

We held our ground. For nearly a year. It wasn't easy. Our daughter's increasing anxiety, her distress at being tagged "a nobody with no Instagram" forced us to take a closer look at what was actually going on. We had to look no further than our own middle school years.

Which is how we realized how much Instagram and blue Nikes have in common.

When Kelly was 13 suddenly all his friends could talk about were the cool blue running shoes with the weird name. Soon everybody seemed to be wearing a pair. Except Kelly. Before long blue Nikes were all he could think about. Dream about. The sort of obsession experienced only by those in the throes of puberty. Soon the boy who never asked for anything was begging his parents for blue Nikes. They said no. All summer. $50 was too much to pay for a pair of shoes. He already had a pair of sneakers in his closet. By August Kelly felt paralyzed. Consumed by the horror of returning to school without Instagram. Oops.

Of course the blue Nikes were never about running. Or shoes. Just as Instagram has never been about photography. Or spelling.

In a recent Time magazine piece titled "Let Kids Run Wild Online," Danah Boyd zeroes in on the dilemma facing modern parents: how technology has become "the new field for the age-old battle between adults and their freedom-craving kids." Her conclusion:

[H]elping youth navigate contemporary digital life isn't more restrictions. It's freedom-plus communication... What makes the digital street safe is when teens and adults collectively agree to open their eyes and pay attention, communicate and collaboratively negotiate difficult situations. Teens need the freedom to wander the digital street, but they also need to know that caring adults are behind them and supporting them wherever they go.

Kelly and I had arrived at the same conclusion, once we were able to let go of our fears long enough to put ourselves in our daughter's blue Nikes. And figure out, as Kelly's parents had to 30 years ago, that sometimes shoes are more than shoes.

Which is how we ended up giving our daughter our blessing to join those walking wounded, the Instagram-afflicted. In fact we all contracted Instagram together. By which I mean we actually drew up a contract, two pages spelling out rules and guidelines Kelly, our paranoia and I could live with and our daughter could sign her name to.

Instagram Contract

Despite what you might think, we, your parents, respect your growing independence and need to become your own person. Now that you're 13, we want you to have a great time on Instagram with your friends and feel sure you will. The goal of this contract is to achieve that, while putting in place some rules and guidelines to help keep you safe. Our job.

Every family has to make up its own rules around devices and the Internet and apps like Instagram. These are ours. We, your parents, think they are fair. If you don't think they're fair, tell us why and we can discuss it. They may even change.

Yes. This contract, like Instagram, will receive updates and improvements over time, once we all get a better understanding of how Instagram works and how you and your friends use it. We're all learning about this together. Though we have talked through most of these points with you, the purpose of having them written down is so that there are no misunderstandings, and to assure that we are all on the same page.

Terms and Conditions:

Okay, that's as far as I'm going. No way I'm publishing our daughter's terms and conditions for the world to see. Not only would that defeat the point of helping her learn the importance of privacy in an online world that abhors it. Having her Instagram Terms and Conditions made public would rightly mortify her, with no good outcome for me. I can easily picture a humiliating Instagram series of me, say, bending over to pick up my car keys (#mydadsfat*ss). Or, more likely, a photographic record of my death by curling wand.

So if you were hoping to cut and paste our contract as a template for your own, not going to happen. I do, however, recommend including these basics:

  1. A stipulation that you set up your kid's Instagram account together. (They'll need to an email address to do this. If they don't have their own, you can use yours.) Have them pick a username that is not their real name. Make sure you know their password. They'll be asked to create a profile. Even with their account set to Private, profiles and profile pictures are available to the public. Don't include personal information in a profile (real name, birthday, address, phone number, email, etc.). If they choose to upload a profile picture, let them know why it's safer for those under 18 to use something other than a selfie. Get creative.
  2. Make sure the account is set to Private. It's the only way to assure that only people they/you know personally can see the photos they post. No strangers. No adults, except trusted family or friends. Even then, adults have a tendency of posting things meant for other adults, not kids. Which they may love. You might not.
  3. Most photos taken with a smartphone are by default stamped with the date and time and location where the photo was taken. A quick Google search will let you know how to avoid this by turning this feature OFF on your kid's phone (and your own). In addition, instruct your kid never accidentally to switch on "Add to Photo Map" when posting a photo. IMPORTANT: very often when a smartphone gets a periodic operating system update, its location tracking will default back to "ON." Make sure they are aware of this and know how to reset photo location tracking to OFF.
  4. Even with their account set to Private, your kids' photos can be screenshot, copied and shared with people they never intended to view them. (It's the Internet.) For this reason, have a talk with them about using good judgment with all photos they allow to be taken of them or that they post of themselves or others. Discourage bathing-suit shots, body shots, "modeling" shots, etc. There are lots of not-great adults on Instagram looking for exactly that kind of thing.
  5. Insist, in the beginning at least, on being able to "follow" them. You'll have to register for your own Instagram account to do this. Not a bad idea. You'll quickly get a first-hand experience of how it all works. They'll probably balk; following means you'll be able to monitor what they're posting. But just like with cell phones, until you're comfortable with how they're using Instagram, I recommend insisting. Don't abuse this privilege. Try not to check in often. But do check in. Promise to choose a suitably deep-cover username so that NO ONE will suspect it's you. More importantly, promise never to "like" or comment on their photos.

Our daughter signed. Your kid probably will too. She wasn't thrilled about it. But she got her Nikes. And we got a little peace of mind.

Still, to be safe, we make sure never drop our keys when she's nearby with her phone. And we've hidden the curling wand.

* * * * *


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