I just learned that my 12-year-old daughter is an app scofflaw. So, in fact, are the hordes of her fellow tween-agers -- kept off Facebook by their well-intended parents -- who have turned to Instagram as a seemingly innocuous social-network workaround.
As it turns out, just like Facebook, you technically have to be 13 to have an Instagram account. And, just like Facebook, Instagram is more or less a social network, dark sides included. Kids post photos, their followers comment... and then those not invited to said birthday party or shopping excursion get hurt feelings.
Many of us adults discovered Instagram as a nifty photo-sharing app that's lets you spruce up your photos with cool filters. But it has all the functionality of a social network, which Instagram founder Kevin Systrom says was by design.
"We are delighted that there is such a social component to using the app," he said, "but we target and intend for our user base to be 13 or older and because of legal restrictions cannot have anyone under that age using the app."
It's not easy proving the popularity of Instagram among the tween set with hard data, mostly because, as Systrom acknowledged, the service doesn't "currently disclose demographic data." It's unclear whether this might change now that Facebook has officially closed its purchase of Instagram.
Asked specifically if he's heard about the growing numbers of tweens on Instagram and Systrom could only offer that the service has grown in just about every demographic, from "the elderly side" to the 13-plus group. "The proliferation of iPod Touches and iPads has also helped growth outside of people that own iPhones," he said.
But even if Instagram did release demographic data, it likely wouldn't reflect reality. Users like my daughter and her 100 young followers have managed to get around the strict Instagram terms requiring users to be 13 or older to use the service. If their iTunes accounts are set up correctly, tweens shouldn't be allowed to download the app, Systrom said. My daughter's account, for example, must still be tied to my account -- she's had an iPod Touch for years and still goes through me before buying apps. (So yes, I'm actually just as much the app scofflaw.)
Plus, upon signup, Instagram gives you a birthday picker that doesn't let you chose an age younger than 13, Systrom explained. (My daughter claims no memory of this part of the Instagram sign-up process, so it's unclear how she bypassed it.) Systrom kindly offered to close my daughter's Instagram account, as the service does with any account it learns is in violation of terms. But would mean the end of my already shaky cool-mom status, and after all, she didn't sign on to be the daughter of a journalist.
My daughter's experience aside, a few studies help us connect the dots in support of this meteoric rise in Instagram's popularity among tweens. According to Nielsen, for example, Instagram is the top photography site among teens ages 12 to 17, with 1 million teens visiting the site during July. Nielsen doesn't categorize Instagram as a social network. While Flickr was top photo site for the overall population in July, Instagram was the favorite among teens, Nielsen found.
Add to that an earlier Nielsen study on growing popularity of Facebook and social networks in general among teenagers, and yet another on how teens tripled their mobile data consumption between December 2010 and December 2011, and the picture becomes clear.
Also, a Pew report presented over the summer about teenage online behavior found that 45 percent of online 12-year-olds use social-network sites and that the number doubles to 82 percent for 13-year-old Internet users. The most popular activity for teens on social networks is posting photos and videos, the study found
Parents caught off-guard
We parents have been advised over and over again by educators that our tween-age kids are just too young for Facebook. Most are just not mature enough to gauge what's appropriate for posting and to know how to respond to cyberbullying or contacts from strangers or spammers.
But with Instagram our guards were down. We never really imagined how it would be used. When my daughter asked permission to download the app, I was frankly excited that she was showing interest in photography. I love using the app and was unaware of the age restriction.
I had heard stories of kids on Instagram who had lost friends over not being included in activities posted to the site. But I only really caught onto Instagram's ubiquity as a tweenage social network the day before school started this year, when my daughter's middle school sent out class schedules to individual families using its password protected Web site. Within an hour of viewing the class schedule, my daughter had scribbled out a chart of who was in each of her classes. When I asked how she had figured it all out, she responded, "Everybody posted their schedules on Instagram."
That started me looking through her account. In another Facebook-like status update, she posted a photo of a note she wrote on her iPod Touch that read, "So glad it's a 3 day weekend!!!" That got 31 likes.
Concerns over Instagram have spurred articles like this one in the Washington Post called "What parents need to know about Instagram" and an even more informative one it links to from Yoursphere for Parents called, "Is it okay for kids? What parents need to know."
There, parents have chimed in about their initial ignorance about how Instagram is being used by tweens.
"My fifth-grade daughter and friends purchased the Instagram app with iTunes gift cards. Her friends thought it was an app to take and share pics and at first didn't realize they could post comments," posted a commenter named SAM. "I had no idea that it was a pseudo-Facebook app. (We are waiting until she is 13 to get a FB account.) I did not know that this app would have her following and being followed by hundreds of people she didn't know...and posting comments...it was alarming."
Another commenter, Laura, says she'll be closing her 12-year-old daughter's Instagram account, which has turned into a "nightmare."
"She is not allowed to have a Facebook account until high school to avoid bullying issues, but due to my lack of knowledge (I thought Instagram was basically a glorified camera), I allowed her to have an account," Laura wrote. "In the last week, she has been indirectly contacted by what appears to be a predatorial pedophile posing as a radio contest to which girls send their photos. And she also experienced the middle school drama that I was trying to avoid by the lack of a Facebook account."
Tweens, of course, are merely following the leads of teenagers, and, for that matter, the general population. An Experian Hitwise survey just found that Instagram increased its market share in the U.S. by 17,319 percent between July 2011 and July 2012.
But a friend of mine just offered up a theory on Instagram's youth popularity based on the behavior of his 14-year-old daughter and her friends who are also crazy for Instagram. She's been on Facebook since she was 12 and her parents have always warned her that with other parents (and grandparents) on the social network, she needed to keep her act very clean.
However, her grandparents haven't yet caught wind of Instagram, so she and her friends can be a little freer with what they post and comment on there.
Of course, it may just be a matter of time before older folks join the party. As Instagram founder Systrom noted, the service's numbers are growing on "the elderly side" as well.