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Parents' Ultimate Guide to Instagram

March 06, 2023

Is Instagram safe? How does it work? How do teens use the app?


What is Instagram?

Instagram is a popular, free social media app that lets users post photos and videos, follow popular accounts and friends, and send messages. It's owned by Meta, the company that also owns Facebook and WhatsApp, but it has a visual format that's more appealing to teens.



How does Instagram work?

Once you create an account, you get your feed going by following friends and celebrities. Depending on the type of media you're sharing, you can choose from all sorts of filters and tools to make your post look cool. Then you can add a caption or a hashtag (which categorizes all posts on the same topic together). You have the option of adding a location to your post, but it's not recommended that kids and teens use this function. Instagram offers a lot more features, too, including:

  • Direct messages (DMs). You can send direct messages to one or more people -- including people you don't follow and who don't follow you.

  • Disappearing messages. This is a Snapchat-like feature that lets you send timed photo or video messages that recipients can only view once before they disappear.

  • Stories. These are short videos or slideshows that are separate from other posts.

  • Reels. You can record, edit, and post short videos, like with TikTok.


How old should kids be to use Instagram?

According to the terms of service, you have to be 13, but there's no age-verification process, so it's very easy for kids under 13 to sign up. Common Sense rates Instagram for age 15 and up because of mature content, access to strangers, marketing ploys, and data collection. Check out our social media rules for high schoolers.


What kinds of content will my kid see on Instagram?

The kinds of content that kids will see mostly depends on whom they follow: posts by friends, influencers, meme accounts, and so forth. They will also see targeted ads and posts based on the accounts they follow. It's likely they'll see mature content (including sexy stuff, swearing, and substance use), mean or sexual comments, and hashtags about suicide, anorexia, and other concerning topics.

Sensitive Content Control lets users choose how much potentially upsetting or offensive content—such as material containing violence or individuals in see-through clothing—you'll see from accounts you don't follow. This setting affects content seen in your feed, as well as the Explore, Search, and Reels areas of the app. According to the app, some of this material will be automatically filtered out if you're under 18.



How can I monitor my kid's activity on Instagram?

The app announced that in December 2022, it would be rolling out new parental controls in the U.S., and then globally. Currently, if both parties opt in to the Family Center feature, adults can get updates about who their 13- to 17-year-old kids follow and are followed by, receive notifications if their child reports other users, and set usage limits by day or for specific times of day. They can also view their child's privacy, messaging, and sensitive content settings and get an update if their child changes any of them.

You can also ask your kid to give you a tour of their Instagram account. Ask them to walk you through their account, explain memes and comments, discuss friends, and share whatever comes up. Or try one of these ideas:

  • Create your own Instagram account and follow your kid. You'll see what they post (unless they block you), but you won't see their DMs (direct messages).

  • Follow their friends. It's not unusual for parents and caregivers to be friends with their kids' friends online (but you should hold back on comments). If you're close with your kids' friends, you can follow each other and keep tabs on your kid's doings.

  • Do spot checks. Either random or scheduled, these check-ins give you time to sit down together and go through your kid's feed.

  • Install a third-party monitoring app. Parental controls such as Bark give you a lot of visibility into what kids are doing online. Learn more about parental controls.


Are "finstas" and "rinstas" a thing?

Rinstas and finstas are slang terms that refer to additional Instagram accounts that are completely separate from each other. Finsta stands for "fake Instagram," and these accounts reflect a kid's true self and are only meant for very close friends to see. A rinsta is a kid's "real" Instagram that's highly curated, and they project the type of ideal online persona that's hard to achieve in reality.

Not every kid maintains more than one account, but don't be alarmed if your kid does. Instagram allows users to keep up to five accounts. As long as they follow responsible social media practices such as using privacy settings, not posting things they'll regret, and limiting their audience, finstas and rinstas can be useful tools as kids go through the natural process of figuring out their identities. Try to have regular conversations with your child about what they see and do on social media.


Is there any way to limit or restrict my kid's activity on Instagram, including connecting with strangers?

Instagram accounts are public by default, so the first thing to do is make your kid's account private. To do this, go to Settings from the profile page. Select Privacy and toggle on Private Account. With a private account, only people you approve can see what you post. You get a lot of options in the Privacy section—and you should spend some time here if you're helping your kid set up their first account. You can't lock Privacy settings, though, so be aware that kids can change them back. A few more key Instagram privacy settings:

  • Comment controls. You can limit comments to followers, block comments from specific people, hide "offensive" comments, and create specific filters for words and phrases.

  • Resharing to stories. You can control whether other people can reshare your posts.

  • Photos and videos. You can prevent people from automatically adding pictures of you to your profile without your approval and hide photos and videos so they don't display in your feed.


How can my kid block or report other users on Instagram?

There are options to restrict and block users on Instagram. It's likely that your child might come across cyberbullying or mean behavior on the app. Teach them safe online behavior so they can protect themselves.


What should I do if it seems like my kid can't stop looking at Instagram?

All social media uses persuasive techniques to keep users engaged, and while it can help kids feel connected to friends and family—especially during times of isolation like extended school breaks—it's easy to get sucked in for longer periods than is healthy. If your teen has trouble logging off when they have other stuff to do or they just need a break, you can try using Instagram's Your Activity feature, which the company introduced to help people set limits for themselves. If that doesn't work, you can try using the parental controls built into your phone's operating system (Screen Time on iOS or the Family Link app on Android) to block access and set time limits on all the apps on your kid's phone. A few other tricks: Adjust or turn off notifications completely to calm the need to check the phone every few minutes. And tell kids to stop scrolling once they see the "You're all caught up!" message, which tells them there's no new content to see since the last time they checked.


What are some other risks associated with kids using Instagram?

Because Instagram is so image-based, kids who focus on external validation can get preoccupied with perfection, image, and status, which can negatively affect their well-being. Internal research from Meta leaked in 2021 showed that using Instagram makes body-image issues worse for young people, especially teenage girls. Other mental health issues like anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem have also been linked to the app.

It's not uncommon for some users to curate their feed by uploading only photos and videos that show them at their best and by deleting posts that don't get a certain number of likes. To keep up, teens may post sexy pictures or reveal too much personal information. The effects of influencers are real, so knowing who your kid follows and why might give you insight into who they admire and what products that person might be pushing (note that there's a way to buy products right from the app). As with any other social media app that includes likes and follows, some teens use those as a measuring stick and compare themselves to others. If your kid's activity on the app takes a turn from connection and fun to perfection and anxiety, it's time to take a break. Using it to scroll through other people's posts for long stretches every day can make teens feel worse than when they opened the app.


Are there any potential benefits to my kid using Instagram?

Teens who use Instagram as a way to express themselves—for example, by posting art, poetry, and videos that showcase their talents—tend to have positive experiences with the app. When used in balance with other activities and with purpose (not just endless, mindless scrolling), kids can come away from the app feeling connected and supported.

If your teen uses Instagram, there are some steps you can take to help them get the most positives and fewest negatives. You can sit down and go through the app and its settings with them, note your concerns, lay out your expectations and potential consequences, talk through whatever controls you might use (including spot checks), and set boundaries around when, where, how, and whom they can communicate with to get off to a solid start.

Read Common Sense Media's full review of Instagram to learn more.


Common Sense Media

Common Sense Media rates movies, TV shows, books, and more so parents can feel good about the entertainment choices they make for their kids. We offer the largest, most trusted library of independent age-based ratings and reviews. Our timely parenting advice supports families as they navigate the challenges and possibilities of raising kids in the digital age. Learn more at www.commonsensemedia.org.

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