The time had come to have The Talk with my seventh-grade daughter, and I was horrified. But with her interest increasing and her friends becoming active, I couldn’t put it off any longer. Done well, The Talk would demonstrate to her that she could come to me with questions or concerns and keep her from feeling like the experience was a taboo best hidden from parents. But like most dads, I struggled with the larger questions: How do I talk to my teenage daughter about Instagram? How do I make Instagram safe for my kids?
The Sex Talk felt like a walk in the park compared to this. Despite our generational differences, we all have the shared experience of operating the hormonal nuclear reactor that is the teenage body. While I may not recount to my kid every detail of my sexual journey, I can rely on my recollections of what I was thinking and feeling and doing during my teenage years to guide the conversation.
But I don’t know from experience what it’s like to be a teenager in a technologically connected world. I probably would have made incredibly poor choices if I had had access to a smartphone as a teen. I know all about the teenagers who have paid a price for posting the wrong thing, but while I can talk to my kid from an informed perspective, I can’t speak from experience.
Before diving into the weightier pitfalls of social media, I decided to take the gentle on-ramp of encouraging my daughter not to post pictures of other people without their permission. We had recently watched an episode of “Raven’s Home” in which one of the kids betrayed the confidence of a friend by doing just that, so we had a common reference point. It was a non-threatening way to lay the groundwork of respect as a foundational theme for social media use.
At this point, time was of the essence. The teenage attention span can pass in as few as 27 seconds, so everything in our talk from here on out had to hit. I channeled my best Woody Harrelson and gave my daughter the same speech his Beckett character gave Han Solo.
“Trust no one. Assume everyone will betray you.”
Cynicism is necessary for survival out here on these virtual streets. The internet and the people on it will convince you that what you post is both secure and temporary, but neither of those claims is true. Once a picture or a video or a comment is published, how it is used and who sees it is out of our control. This is the most frightening part of the conversation because it forced me to imagine and then describe worst-case scenarios that are all too common. I had to explain how social media can snag a single thread of our darkest impulses and use it to unravel our relationships and reputation.
I knew she’d tune me out if I simply hit her with a list of things not to post on Instagram. To keep our conversation tied together and constructive, I continued to hit on the theme of respect:
- Respect yourself by not posting anything sexual.
- Respect other people by not posting anything sexual about them.
- Respect people’s feelings by not posting anything that would be hurtful to them.
- Respect our differences by not posting anything racist.
Having covered those bases, I knew the most helpful thing I could do for her would be to set up a safe playground for her to enjoy. We scrolled my feed together so she could see that it was all pictures of family and barbecue.
“Your feed is going to have way more duck-faced selfies and not as much smoked meat as mine. But the thing they should have in common is that they show things we love and enjoy.”
We got her set up following some responsible adults she knows so that her feed would be a template for how to Insta well. We laughed at some of the goofier pictures I had posted and recalled some of the great meals our family has had together. We ended up having fun.
Much like The Sex Talk, our Technology Talk is a conversation that will need to be revisited throughout her teenage years. But the lines of communication are now open, and the goal is to keep them as such even through probable missteps. It’s certainly not mission accomplished, but it feels like a good start.
Christian Dashiell is a father of four living in rural Kansas. He is passionate about justice issues and decompresses by telling jokes and honing his BBQ Jedi skills.