Saving My Sister From Herself On Instagram

Today my sister turned ten. She and I are half a generation apart. It’s jarring for me to see the ways in which her experience of childhood differs from how mine was. I lived this just over a decade ago, I went to the same primary school she does and grew up in a pretty much identical socio-economic environment. But she is inevitably exposed to things which weren’t on my radar at that age, if they even existed.

One of the main differences, which troubles and fascinates me, is the presence of social media in her life. She and all her friends have iPod touches, and through these they access Instagram. I am as hooked on Instagram as the next person. I think it fulfills a role in enabling people to easily share elements of their lives with friends and loved ones; I confess I’m not above posting photos of my most photogenic meals. But there are several elements of the app which I find problematic, when transferred to usage by kids as young as my sister.

There is a widespread obsession across the board on Instagram with accruing as many “likes” as possible on photos posted. It’s a lame but largely harmless form of validation, assuring the Instagram user that their life, as presented via carefully selected and edited images, is enviable and interesting to others.

There’s a lot of “liking in return for liking” on my sister’s Instagram, and it’s pretty funny. A picture she posted, literally of a rock sitting on the floor, gets 22 likes. A bike lane gets 23. A screencap of her iPod playing “Gangnam Style” gets 24.

But there’s another way my sister and her friends use Instagram. It’s not something I was previously familiar with, although it raises associations for me with the days of MySpace. I’m referring to images which ask outright for responses and appraisal. It’s nothing outrageous, but it is a little more nakedly grasping.

This is an overt invitation for others to rate the individual. I find the prospect of inviting unvarnished opinion pretty terrifying, to be honest. But of the 30+ responses this post has received, all are positive. (samples: “10” “100” “9.9+0.1= a perfect 10 hahahahaha”) It’s not about the content of the responses, but the quantity. Of course, I’m glad there’s no-one chiming in to tell her she’s a 0 and a fat slob. But my concern is that my sister is nonetheless engaging a glorified popularity contest, albeit a harmless one. There are other, similar posts; all fishing for compliments.

They’re often just text (bold, all caps) and can veer vertiginously between amusing and concerning:

I wouldn’t mind an ironic t shirt with that printed on it. But then it’s immediately followed by this: “Comment if you would care if I died. Repost and see how many you get!” My stomach drops when I read this.

These kids want the maximum likes and responses to everything they post. To get these, they need as many followers as possible. My sister’s Instagram profile features pictorial lists of the things she loves, and finishes with the request to “please follow” her. She’s not stupid: the importance of online privacy has been drilled into her by her parents. She and her friends comply with this edict by maintaining private accounts. But my sister still has over 200 followers, who have access to every picture she posts. How does she know this many people? Friends, classmates, siblings of those kids, kids in the years above and below her at school, her cousins, family friends.

The privacy issues are not what concern me, not really. There’s not much fodder for creepos in her posts. She’s smart enough not to make personal info accessible: those kinds of warnings are technology use 101 for her generation, they barely warrant an eye-roll. What unnerves me about the way my sister uses Instagram is the skewed value system which encourages artificial spontaneity; compliments given only because they have been sought. She’s at an age which demands constant reassurance. I feel a responsibility to help guide her to be independently strong and certain of her worth; not to require or desire this external, numerical validation.

A few weeks ago, my sister and half a dozen of her girlfriends were discussing a boy in their class who “definitely” had a crush on one of them (These poor boys! They have not at all reached the point of emotional maturity yet, and are totally bemused by the girls’ fixations on them. Bless). I stood by, openly eavesdropping on their elaborate discussion of the ways in which boys signal their feelings. There was a lot I could have told them, but I kept quiet and listened. I learned a lot about the way the girls see the world and their place in it at their age.

My position as the (much) older sister is a privileged one. In my sister and her friends’ eyes, I’m definitely not a child, but neither am I really an adult. I exist in a kind of liminal space which makes me both invisible and desirable. They’re intimidated by me, they don’t notice me, they want to impress me. Sometimes all of these at once.

I’m glad to occupy the role I do. It’s not a parental or authoritarian role. She has her mum and dad for rules and all the normal parental things. What I can offer is something less tangible, less official. I will supervise her through the minefield of social media (even when it occasionally baffles me too). I will observe without intruding. I understand that there are things she doesn’t want mum to see, not because they’re rude or naughty, but because they are private and sharing something with your mum is in many ways the most public airing possible. I’m privileged, because she values my opinion on most topics. She listens to me, and thinks about what I say. This is such an honor, and it means that I have a responsibility to try to show her, gently, as best I can, how best to be. Sometimes, that means teaching her to love herself, independent of “likes”.

As much as I fret (mostly unnecessarily) about my younger siblings’ social, academic and personal lives, my brother and sisters are all inordinately well-rounded little people. Their maturity, their joy and their intelligence are unfailing and give me the warm fuzzies. But when my sister recently posted a picture of a berry cheesecake she’d made herself, I couldn’t resist “liking” it – and then driving over to my mum’s house to visit her and taste it for myself.

You can read more from Veronica Sullivan on her blog.

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