How can I monitor my 12-year-old daughter’s use of Instagram?

Michael Rich, MD, MPH

Michael Rich, MD, MPH, is Boston Children’s Hospital’s media expert and director of Boston Children’s Center on Media and Child Health. Send him a media-related parenting question via and follow him on Twitter @CMCH_Boston.

Q: I am trying to monitor my 12-year-old daughter’s use of Instagram and am wondering if there is a way to find any ‘secret storage’ spaces on her smartphone. I am not too concerned right now, but in the future I would like to know how to access it. Instagram is the only social media platform I allow her to use at this point, but I am concerned that it is just as bad as Facebook. I am considering banning her from using it based on what I have seen other kids post.

-Iffy about Instagram, Rockport, MA

A: First, it is important for parents to be aware that social media are restricted by law to children 13 and older, because these sites target their users for marketing—and kids haven’t fully developed the cognitive ability to understand that the personalized messages they receive are selling them a product or idea. Most importantly, however, on Instagram your daughter is sending and receiving images over the World Wide Web, where they travel quickly, spread broadly, and are “sticky”–they will exist essentially forever on hard drives somewhere in the world.

There are a number of apps available that allow users like your daughter to hide images and messages, and these apps are constantly changing. So instead of focusing your efforts on finding your daughter’s secret Instagram stash, adjust your focus. Share and teach media use with your daughter, just as you will sit in the front seat of the car when she learns to drive. The privacy and secrecy with which young people use media is not an inherent right; it has evolved because many parents have defaulted their parenting role in the digital domain. Help your daughter make decisions about photo sharing—and all social media activities—in ways that are effective, safe, and respect themselves and others. To do that, establish an ‘open-screen policy’ that includes you in her social media exchanges:

  • Cyber space is not private space. sure your daughter understands that her on-line life is not separate from her ‘real’ life, and that you are her parent both on- and off-line. Children need guidance when using internet because they don’t yet fully understand or value privacy the way they will when they mature, they don’t know how to protect their reputations, and they can’t foresee the future repercussions that may occur.
  • Educate yourself. Be sure that you know how to use the applications, sites, and accounts you allow your daughter to use. Familiarizing yourself with on-line content prior to giving your daughter permission to engage with it will ensure that it is developmentally optimal, and will give you a better understanding of her internet and social media activities.
  • Be a co-member on all media accounts. Unless you are completely comfortable allowing your daughter to go to an unchaperoned party, sign up for on-line activities with her, using a username and password you both can access. This way she knows that you will have the ability to check in on her activity at random intervals, and that you are maintaining an open dialogue about her on-line activity, available to mentor and support her should an issue arise.

A large part of parenting in the digital domain is taking your everyday parenting know-how and applying it to the digital environment in which your children are growing up. You are more prepared and qualified than you think–human development has not changed, the environment has. You can learn it from and with your daughter, turning a source of worry into an opportunity for bonding.

Enjoy your media and use them wisely,

The Mediatrician®