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Since When Were So Many Little Kids on Instagram?

“I have my own Instagram account,” an 8-year-old boy casually mentioned while scrolling through his iPod Touch.

“You do?” I respond, genuinely surprised. I’ve spent the last year with older neighborhood boys tromping in and out of my house, and so I’ve been privy to just about everything my 6-year-old boy could morph into next—and yes, I am well aware of how techy the 7-and-up kids are these days.

But still: Instagram? The app with a 13+ age requirement and a reputation for racy selfies?

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The boy gave me his handle and so I looked him up on my own well-used IG page. His account was set to private. Phew, I thought. But wait a minute, this can’t be right.

“You have 314 followers?” I looked up, eyes wide. “How can you possibly know 300 people?”

He nods, smiling. Apparently everyone in his school (elementary school, remember) is on Instagram.

“I’m pretty well-known in my school,” he shrugs off, with just a glint of pride.

I’d say so. With over 300 followers and a feed that follows almost 700 people, that’s quite the connection for a third-grader.

As it turns out, that kid wasn’t exaggerating. I took the conversation to other moms, gently asking if they’ve heard about this new Instagram trend among pre-tweens; I opened the topic up on Facebook; I picked the brain of every child who walked in my door with an iPod Touch.

And wouldn’t you know it, Instagram has fully infiltrated our elementary schools, specifically around the fifth-grade mark. If a fifth-grader doesn’t have Instagram, “all of his friends” do. Don’t believe me? Ask around your neighborhood. See how many 9-year-old kids are using “Instagram” as a verb.

I can’t imagine the psychological torture of walking into elementary school knowing most of your class has seen something really embarrassing and has also “liked” it.

Third grade—that’s the year I was picked on by a group of pigtail-pulling boys. The very next year, those same boys were leaving gifts for me on my desk during recess. (The drama! The angst!) The terms “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” started to be used. “Cliques” emerged. I was part of one, and we were momentarily divided when my closest friend wrote another girl’s initials on the bathroom sink with soap, along with a boy classmate’s initials. The girl was furious, passive aggression ensued; within two days, all was forgiven.

But you know what? Soap washes away. Guess what doesn’t.

If you think back to your later elementary school years, can you imagine those momentary crushes, silly thoughts and social immaturity captured for 314 people to see, to “like,” to comment on with their equally immature opinions? We already know that third-, fourth- and fifth-graders are dealing with lunchroom politics and mean-girl behavior, but now they have Instagram, too.

A friend of mine, blogger Jeanne Sager, said that a young girl was posting “nasty things” about her 10-year-old cousin, even though her cousin didn’t have Instagram herself. She still knew about it; it still stung. I can’t imagine the psychological torture of walking into elementary school knowing most of your class has seen something really embarrassing and has also “liked” it. It’s like a "naked at school dream" for the digital age.

“Many of my Instagram followers are little girls I used to coach [at gymnastics],” said my 26-year-old sister, who has worked with elementary-school children for years. “And I see their pages, who they follow, and sometimes it’s alarming. I know it fuels a lot of fights and drama between 10- to 13-year-old girls. It’s just added stress from being so ‘connected’ all the time. It can be draining and cause a lot of anxiety even. Not to mention the inappropriate things right at their fingertips.”

Really think about whether you want your kids to define their self-worth with the amount of “likes” on a picture or by the number of followers.

Yes, that’s another thing—ALL OF THE PHOTOS ON INSTAGRAM. Even if you closely monitor who your child is following, mandating “only real-life friends,” one of his buddies could “like” a porn star’s photo, which would show up on your child’s feed, thus giving him access. We’re talking about prepubescent boys, right? Nothing is stopping them from typing “booty” into the search bar and—go on, try it out; see what kinds of pages come up.

It’s not only the explicit images, but the disturbing ones too. My sister has seen girls as young as 10 years old “liking” #thinspiration photos and even self-harm quotes. No privacy setting will shield them.

Parents, please pay attention. Recognize that Instagram has a 13+ rule, and there’s good reason for it. If your kid already has an account, get your own account and understand how it works—check out their followers and following, and look at the pictures they’re “liking.” Put up limits. Talk about this stuff. And really think about whether you want your kids to define their self-worth with the amount of “likes” on a picture or by their number of followers. It’ll happen eventually, but does it have to be so soon?

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“The funniest thing happened today,” my 6-year-old bounds up the stairs. He had been playing with two third-grade boys.

“We were spinning around in a chair and taking a video, and I fell off, and it was hilarious,” he said, breathless and smiling. “We Instagrammed it.”

Before I could process that, they all scurried out the door, giggling.

“It already has 32 likes!” I hear one boy announce.

Giggles.

Image via Twenty20/evelynbit

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