In less than five years, Instagram has gone from “that picture app” to become the most popular social media platform with tweens (ages 8-12) and teens (ages 13-18), with no signs of a slow-down.

In September 2015, Instagram reached 400 million users, with over 75% of its user base living outside of the U.S. It is the doorway social media experience for most young people, making it critical that parents have a keen understanding of its uses and risks. Whenever I ask a group of parents to tell me something they know about Instagram, one of the first answers from them is always “it’s just pictures.” But, here’s what teens know about Instagram:

Instagram Dangers

I can bully kids and not get caught

Using a fake account is a common tool utilized by cyberbullies in the social media world. On Instagram, fake accounts are called “Finstas,” and they are used as a second account that is shared with only very close friends, or in a sinister fashion as an anonymous way to comment horrible things on certain pictures.

The solution for parents? You only know what you know, and hiding a fake social media account is easy. Parents can battle this trend with regular, “look them in the eye” conversations about their devices. You might even mention the fact that “sometimes kids use fake social media accounts, which can really crush someone. Honestly, you could probably hide that from me, but let’s rise above that and be open with each other. The consequence for using Instagram in that way, if I were to find out, would be [fill in the blank].” Having this type of open and direct conversation can go a long way in preventing inappropriate use of the app.

I can easily find porn. Yes, straight up video sex

With over 400 million users, and an endless stream of pictures categorized with hashtags, Instagram could easily be classified as an unfiltered internet search engine. Do you want to see cute kittens? Just search for #cutekittens. Do you want to see spring break pictures? Type in #springbreak. Do you want to see naked photos? Type in #topless. Yes, Instagram contains a massive, unfiltered amount of pornography.

The solution for parents? This one is tough, because there isn’t much that can be done. None of the parental controls on iOS or Android have any impact on the Instagram app. This is simply a risk of using Instagram. Parents can check the search history, but as you will read below, savvy teens clear their search history regularly.

I can access Tumblr, Google, Bing, Yahoo and Twitter without ever leaving Instagram

Through the Instagram blog (which can be found under the “options” gear in the upper right corner in the user profile), users can access a Twitter search, and by using the Google, Bing or Yahoo accounts on Twitter, perform unfiltered searches for anything. All without ever leaving Instagram!

The solution for parents? On iOS devices, add Twitter to the “never allow” list under “restrictions” to prevent access to this Twitter search.

Instagram dangers

I can transform myself into a prettier me

Instagram provides access to filters that in days past, were reserved for professional photographers. Anyone can create a gorgeous image with the “X-Pro” filter and a bit of hue. But, for young teenage girls, the pressure to produce the perfect selfie, complete with skinny arm and up/off to the right (for the perfect angle)….that’s the goal. Such a photo maximizes likes (because I’m constantly comparing my likes to everyone else) and revs my popularity engine in front of my peers. But, it creates a damaging exchange. With each photo, I’m exchanging real beauty for manufactured beauty. And, I’ve attached my heart and overall self-worth to the hearts I do (or don’t) receive from my followers.

The solution for parents? Let’s start by admitting Instagram is intended for a more mature audience. Its own guidelines state that kids should be at least 13 before creating an account. I just don’t think the 13-year old heart is ready for the toxic whispers of Instagram’s constant barrage of shallow beauty.

Instagram dangersThere are no parental controls in Instagram

This is one of Instagram’s greatest weaknesses. With a simple click on “clear search history” in the settings, all user and hashtag searches are instantly cleared.

The solution for parents? There isn’t one, other than open conversation. At Covenant Eyes, we think most parents could use a few cues when it comes to these types of talks. That’s why we’ve just released our most comprehensive e-book yet, Parenting the Internet Generation: A Blueprint for Teaching Digital Discernment, which includes sex and technology conversations guides by age from a Christian perspective.

Recently, I spoke to around 85 fourth graders at a local, public elementary school in one of Grand Rapids’ suburbs. I asked the kids how many of them had their own Instagram account, and around one-third of the hands went up. With each of the risk areas listed above, there’s one solution for parents that trumps all the others. BE the parent. If the app is intended for 13-year olds, then it’s OK to say no.

In the digital age, there’s no such thing as passive parenting. Parents who are observant, engaged and informed often have kids who learn to use technology well.

BONUS: Safety Precaution

It’s easy for people and predators to figure out where you live by searching the locations of your photos. Find out how to disable that function in Instagram and why you should.


Chris McKenna

Chris McKenna has a BA in Accountancy and Spanish from Western Michigan University. After careers in business advising, youth ministry, and church stewardship, Chris just recently became the Educational Resource Manager for Covenant Eyes. This comes on the heels of creating in 2015 as a resource to equip and educate parents and teens on the latest gadgets, apps, and give them tools for how to use the Internet well.
Kristen Jenson
Kristen A. Jenson is the founder of Protect Young Minds and author of Good Pictures Bad Pictures: Porn-Proofing Today's Young Kids. Kristen enjoys speaking, writing and anything else that will help empower kids to reject pornography. Kristen earned a bachelor’s degree in English Literature, and a master’s degree in Organizational Communication. Kristen currently lives with her husband in Washington State, where she enjoys growing a vegetable garden, watching Masterpiece Theater, and taking long walks with friends who tolerate her incessant talking about you know what. Above all else, her husband and three children are her greatest treasures.