From Reporting Comments to Privacy Settings, Here's How to Keep Teens Safe on Instagram
Karina Newton, head of public policy at Instagram, explains how to prevent unwanted contact, abusive comments, offensive content and more
Social media gives users the power to communicate with strangers all over the world. Some blind online interactions lead to friendship, love and family connection, while others have resulted in “catfishing,” stalking or worse.
Earlier this month, Travis Barker‘s daughter Alabama Luella, 13, made headlines when she shared since-deleted screenshots of inappropriate direct messages she received from Echosmith drummer Graham Sierota.
The earliest Instagram messages — including, “By the way I’m Graham from echosmith and I think ur beautiful” — date back to 2016, when the Blink-182 rocker’s daughter was 10 years old. Then a few weeks ago, on July 12, 20-year-old Sierota invited Alabama to a barbecue.
Barker, 43, responded to the news in a statement to The Blast: “When I found out a 20-year-old man was trying to get in touch with my 13-year-old daughter by filling her Instagram messages with party invites and compliments I was disgusted.”
He added, “That’s predatory behavior and there is nothing cool, normal or okay about it at all.”
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Sierota (whose parents confirmed he is on the autism spectrum) apologized for his actions on Aug. 1 in a statement obtained by PEOPLE.
“I had invited Alabama to my parents’ big family BBQ along with many other people, and it wasn’t until she responded that I realized her age at which point I apologized to her,” Sierota said. “I’m really sorry and feel very badly about this. I didn’t realize she was a minor and assumed she was my age.”
“I made a careless mistake and this is a big lesson for me,” he added. “I would like to apologize again to Alabama, her dad Travis and her family.”
“This was an honest mistake,” his family said in a statement to PEOPLE. “Graham is clearly a sweet kid who thinks everyone is his friend. This is a big lesson for everyone and we are going to push Instagram and social media to force people to put their ages in their bio so that it can be informative to both sides.”
Alabama has since forgiven the musician: “He is very sorry about the situation and regretful … I forgive him and would like for this all to be over,” she wrote in an Instagram Story on Aug. 2.
Still, the incident poses the question: How do we keep kids safe on social media? Instagram’s head of public policy Karina Newton weighs in.
Newton tells PEOPLE that step one is for parents to create a “shared language” with their teens and make sure the entire family is on the same page.
“Frequently, parents who have teens who are on Instagram may not be Instagram users themselves, so they don’t know what the terms are or what questions they should be asking,” Newton tells PEOPLE. “At parents.instagram.com, we included a glossary of Instagram terms, which I think is really important.”
Parents.instagram.com was designed to help parents “understand the changing digital landscape and what your kids are doing online,” according to the website.
Newton says it features a list of 10 questions that help parents open a conversation about social media with their teens, including, “What do you like about Instagram?”, “What are five accounts you’re following?” and “Have you ever felt uncomfortable with something you saw?”
Privacy and Security Settings
Of course, the account privacy setting is always an option on Instagram — and Newton suggests that users under 18 turn it on — but the social media platform also has several other policies in place to ensure that privacy is protected.
Instagram users have the ability to block or mute certain accounts, control the comment section under their posts, hide offensive comments, filter comments manually or turn off the comments section altogether.
“You can block people who you think are abusing you or harassing you,” Newton says. “We also have custom comment control, a feature where you can add you can automatically filter out abusive comments or harassing comments. That’s automatically on, but people can choose to turn it off if they want.”
She adds, “There’s also a field to manually add any words or phrases or emojis that you don’t want to show up on your posts.”
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Reporting Inappropriate Content
Parents.instagram.com states: “To help people avoid posts that might be upsetting or they would rather not see, we may limit the visibility of certain posts that have been flagged by the Instagram community for containing sensitive content.”
Instagram users can report other sensitive material (like posts that include proof or implications of self-harm, or live broadcasts that document at-risk behavior), as well as inappropriate, abusive or simply unwanted interactions via direct message. As a general rule of thumb, Newton tells PEOPLE that parents should encourage their kids to never accept messages from strangers.
“When you send a report, it goes to our trained team of reviewers who check reports 24 hours a day,” she says. “We work quickly to remove any violating content, and [what] defines the violating content is what’s in those community guidelines.”
“We also do that for comments that might be concerning for child endangerment or inappropriate interaction with children, so that would also be escalated for review for a special safety team to look at,” she adds.
Newton notes that employees who filter through reported content review the context of the post and try to fully understand the case before taking action.
In especially sensitive situations, in which blocking an account or reporting a post could exacerbate the problem, Newton suggests turning on “restricted mode,” where “you can restrict someone from commenting on your post and sending you messages, but you can still have access to seeing what those comments and requests are.”
Instagram also recently introduced a policy that automatically filters out abusive comments. Newton tells PEOPLE that this takes the responsibility to report something off of the user and allows “technology to proactively detect it.”
But regardless of the policies in place, she says that “Every parent knows their kid,” which makes them the best judge of what (and how much) to monitor on their social media accounts.
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