I teach journalism at Hood College and it’s my job to keep up with the latest trends in social media. I don’t know if it’s a good or bad thing that my 12-year-old is often the one who teaches me. Last week, I signed up for Instagram, the picture-sharing Internet service. My goal was to explore its journalism and public relations capabilities, but what I stumbled upon is a tween networking haven. While I have a number of friends and former colleagues on Instagram, I was surprised to see how many tweens are using it to communicate. It’s easy to understand why. Kids take a picture with a tablet or smart phone, and with a couple taps of the screen, they upload it to the Internet. Because it is mainly a photo app, they don’t have to write much. As one television show character described it, “Instagram is Twitter for those who can’t read.” I knew my son was using it and so I insisted he allow me to follow him. He was horrified at the idea. He hated my user name, Profatwood, and he said my profile picture looked geeky. It isn’t cool to have your mom follow you on Instagram. But when I threatened to take away his iPad, he had to allow me to follow him. Already, I have my concerns. My son seems mostly interested in posting pictures of himself. Because followers can “like” or comment on a photo, he has become obsessed with what people think of his photos and with how many followers he has. I’ve had repeated conversations with him about proper use of social media and told him he shouldn’t measure success by the number of “likes” he gets on Instagram, but tweens are incredibly vulnerable to peer pressure. When our kids were small, we baby-proofed the entire house. We put covers on the electrical outlets, locks on cabinets and foam padding around sharp surfaces. Now I’m trying to do the same thing with the Internet. I’m trying to monitor screen time, put blocks on inappropriate websites and keep an eye out for problems. But it’s much harder to protect kids from the real dangers of the virtual world.
Liz Atwood is a former Baltimore Sun features editor who teaches journalism at Hood College. She is the mother of two sons, ages 11 and 16.
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