The Unspoken Rules Kids Create for Instagram

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CreditJake Michaels for The New York Times

The challenge of growing up in the digital age is perfectly epitomized by the “bikini rule.”

“You can post a bikini or bathing suit picture only if you are with your siblings or your family in the picture,” said one middle-school girl participating in a focus group on digital media. In other words, don’t try too hard to be sexy, and you will be O.K. in the eyes of your peers.

By high school, the rules change. At that stage, a bikini picture often is acceptable — and even considered “body positive” in some circles.

As an educational consultant, I lead workshops on digital media at schools around the country, giving me an unusual glimpse into the hidden world of middle and high school students. While parents sometimes impose rules for using social media on their kids, the most important rules are those that children create for themselves.

And these often unspoken rules can be dizzying.

Girls want to be sexy, but not too sexy. Be careful which vacation photos you share so you don’t brag. It’s O.K. to post photos from a fun event, but not too many.

In one focus group I held recently with seventh-grade girls in an affluent suburb, all the girls were avid Instagram and Snapchat users. It was clear that they understood the dynamic of presenting a persona through the images they posted. It was also clear that they had a definite set of “rules” about pictures.

Aware of their privileged socioeconomic status, they talked about how it would not be O.K. to share vacation pictures of a fancy hotel. They used an example of a classmate who had violated this rule. Like many unspoken social rules, this one became vivid to these girls upon its violation.

As part of a school project, the girl had displayed pictures from a vacation at a foreign resort. Her classmates considered that an immature form of “bragging.” They said other kids had gone on even “better trips” or lived in “amazing houses,” but “knew better” than to post about it.

The same girls identified another peer as “too sexual,” a judgment that some of their parents even encouraged. A few of the girls said that their moms did not want them to hang out with her because she “acts too sexy.” One of the girls expressed this very sentiment in a group text that included the peer in question, causing hurt feelings and conflicts.

Middle school can be an especially complicated time for girls. They are experimenting with social identity, while their always-on digital world intensifies the scrutiny. Many want to be seen as pretty (and even sexy, in some ways), but they also want to be seen as innocent and “nice.” This is an impossible balancing act. Parents can help by suggesting more empowering alternatives to posting bathing suit pictures.

Another group of seventh graders (mixed gender, in a different community) shared with me the rules around how many pictures to post from an event. They had a sense of what was acceptable and what was not. Posting one to three images was O.K., they said, but they all agreed that it was “obnoxious” to “blow up people’s phones” with a huge stream of images from a party or event.

These images can lead to feeling of exclusion as well. Imagine watching a party unfold, in real time, on Snapchat or Instagram — when you’re not there. This experience can be absolutely devastating to teens and tweens. When I asked these particular seventh graders about this, they said that it happened all the time — and that it can be hard to deal with.

With their lives constantly on display, it’s challenging even for well-intentioned kids to avoid making others feel excluded. Their “rule” for this was that “it is better not to lie or make excuses” if you are with one friend and another friend wants to hang out. It’s better to be honest and say, “I have plans” than to lie and say, “I have too much homework,” and then risk sharing images of yourself out with friends later.

Parents often feel as if their children’s smartphones are portals to another world — one that they know little to nothing about. A study released last month found that fewer than half of the parents surveyed regularly discussed social media content with their tweens and teens.

But parents need to know their child’s peers have created their own set of rules for social media, and they should ask their kids about them. What are you “allowed” to post — and what seems to be off-limits? Is that “rule” the same for boys vs. girls? Why or why not? Can you show me an example of a “good” post (or a “bad” post)? Does social media ever stress you out (and can you give yourself a break)? How can kids in your group make group texts or social media nicer for everyone?

In a study published last summer, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that the pleasure centers of teenagers’ brains responded to the reward of getting likes on Instagram just as they do to thoughts of sex or money. Just as parents try to teach children to have some self-control around those enticements, we also have to talk to them about not falling victim to behavior they’ll regret when craving “likes.”

As parents, we don’t want our kids to make a big mistake online: writing something mean in a group text, posting a too-sexy picture or forwarding one of someone else. According to a Pew Research Center survey, 24 percent of teenagers are online “almost constantly,” so it’s essential that they know how to handle themselves there.

Getting your child to articulate the unspoken rules can be the first step in helping him or her be more understanding with peers. When we observe our children harshly judging others who have a different sensibility about how to use social media, they need us to set aside our judgments about their world and to help them cultivate empathy for one another.

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