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Instagram – what are the issues?

Instagram is a simple photo app with a huge and growing following, especially among young people. It's used to capture special moments and then to carry on conversations using filters, comments, captions, emoticons, hashtags, and links alongside the photos. It's a way of talking about things and sharing interests. It runs on the Apple iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch as well as Android phones and tablets.

What is Instagram?

Instagram is an app that allows you to take a picture directly or import one from your the album on your phone. You can then choose to apply filters and other photo-enhancing tools to customize the image. After that, you add a caption. Then you hit Next and choose how you want to share the photo – with your Instagram followers, or outside the app, via email, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media services.

Instagram Stories and Go Live

Instagram now has a stories feature, similar to Snapchat. Users can take photos and videos, apply filters and location geo-tags and then post them to their Instagram story. They can also upload older photos from their camera roll to their story and it will stay viewable for 24 hours. Users are told when someone takes a screen shot of their story, but not if the person takes a screenshot of their video.

As well as replying to a person's Instagram story with a written message, users can now reply with a video or photo of their own. All the camera features, including filters, stickers and video loops, are all accessible when replying. The response will dissapear after the recepient has viewed it and there will be a notification if it is screen shot or replayed.

Combined with Instagram Stories, users can also opt to ‘Go Live’ and stream whatever they are doing to their followers. 

If the person’s Instagram is public and is popular with hundreds of viewers, then it may show up on the ‘Popular’ page encouraging others to watch the stream too. Viewers can send comments to the person streaming and send heart emojis to show appreciation for the video. Users can set their account to be viewed by friends only.

Once the Instagram live stream is over, it will stay viewable to users as part of their Instagram Story, unless the person chooses to delete it.

If your kids are using Instagram, the best way for you to learn about it is to ask them how it works. Children are often glad to teach their parents about their favorite tech tools, and it's a great way to learn about the app itself and also how they interact with their friends in social media. That will depend on their own preferences and how their friends behave, but here's some general information about using and staying safe in Instagram:

Responsible photo-sharing

  • You control your privacy. By default, photos you share in Instagram can be seen by anyone, but you can change that. Tap the Profile button on the bottom left. Then, either select the gear button in the upper right corner or Edit Your Profile and scroll down to see if 'Photos Are Private' is turned on or off. (Android users, tap Profile and Edit your profile. Be sure 'Photos are Private' is checked.) If you update or reinstall the software, make sure your settings are still the way you want them.
  • Privacy can't be perfect. Even if your photos are private, your profile is public (anyone can see your profile photo, username and bio). You can add up to 10 lines of text about yourself, so you may want to talk about your children about what's appropriate here.
  • Respect other people’s privacy. If someone else is in a photo you post, make sure that person's OK with your sharing or tagging them in it.
  • Your posting has impact. Think about how a photo you post affects others – whether they're in the photo or not. Sometimes it’s the friends not in the photo who can be hurt (because they weren’t included).
  • Think about your location-sharing. The 'Add to your Photo Map' feature gives you the option of adding a location to a photo. It's turned off by default, but it’s 'sticky' – so, once turned on, it stays on until you turn it off. You can always turn it back on but, for each picture you share, think about whether you really want people to know where you snapped it.
  • Sharing beyond Instagram. By default, you're sharing your photos only on Instagram but, after cropping and enhancing, you have the option to share a photo more widely by clicking on email, Facebook, twitter, etc., then Share. If you do share elsewhere, be aware of the privacy settings on that service. For example, unless your twitter profile is private, your image will be shared to everyone by default. Facebook's default setting is to share Instagram photos to friends only. But after you share a photo on Facebook, you can change that setting in Facebook by selecting it and changing the audience.

How you represent yourself

  • Your photos represent you. That probably seems obvious, but remember they can keep on representing you well into the future, because content posted online or with phones is pretty impossible to take back. So it's a good idea to think about how photos you post now will reflect on you down the line. If you think a photo might hurt a job prospect, damage a relationship or upset your grandmother, consider not sharing it.
  • Manage your profile. Your photos appear in the Photos of You section of your profile. They can be visible to anyone unless your account is private. Others can tag you in photos they take but, if you don't like a photo, you can hide it from your profile or untag yourself (it'll still be visible on Instagram but not associated with your screen name and not in your profile). If you don't want photos to appear in Photos of You automatically, you can prevent that by turning off 'Add Automatically' by clicking on the Gear button and choosing 'Add Manually.' (Android users, tap the Photos Of You tab, then the three small squares.)
  • Consider the whole photo. The background of a photo could indicate where the picture was taken or what the people in it were doing at the time. Is that information you want to convey?
  • Your photos could show up anywhere. Remember that anything digital can be copied and shared by others. So even if you limit the audience, be careful not to share anything that could be a problem if someone were to pass it around.

Updated June 2017

Updated October 2016: Since this article was published Instagram has added a story mode where people can take videos throughout the day and post them for everyone to see. They have also added a private message feature.
Updated September 2016: Please note, since this article was written, Instagram has updated some of its safety settings and its logo. Find out about more about the latest parental controls on Instagram here.
Read about Instagram's new tool to block offensive content here.