A teenager’s Instagram account nearly blew our family apart

My niece loves to pout and show off her body on social media. Like many other teens, she can’t go a day without taking dozens of selfies and sharing them with the world. She’s a beautiful girl, and has it down to a fine art — she could give Kylie Jenner a run for her money.

When I first saw a grainy Instagram snap of her in a crop top, hair tumbling over her bare shoulders as she gazed into the camera, red lips plumped and parted, I did a double take. Where was the little girl I knew? Wasn’t it only yesterday she was running around my house in a tracksuit, the only color on her face from hours practicing cartwheels in the garden?

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She was still only 12.

My own daughter is a lot younger, so I’d never had to deal with this feeling before. Sure, I’d seen enough pictures of pre-teens and teens getting their pout on. But this was my niece. Scrolling through her Instagram feed, I tried to judge the images as if I didn’t know her. I would have assumed she was at least 16. I didn’t stop to figure out whether this was a bad thing, or what the best way to deal with it was.

I let my heart make the call on this one, and I fucked up.

I couldn’t get hold of my sister, so I did what I thought was the next best thing. I called my parents. Mistake No. 1. Instead of calming me down, they added fuel to my fire. It wasn’t long before we were gathered in my parents’ kitchen, my sister included, arguing about who had the right to decide what the 12-year-old in the family should and shouldn’t share on social media. Words like “inappropriate,” “provocative,” “judgmental” and “irresponsible” were thrown around as tempers flared.

My sister said it was none of our business. Was she right? I’m not sure. We need to keep an eye on what the children in our lives are doing, because sometimes they get it wrong and need a bit of guidance. Isn’t what’s going on in a family — good or bad — everybody’s business? That’s just the way it works. Some families don’t get involved in each other’s dramas. Some — like mine — get too involved. But it’s hard to change the habits of a lifetime.

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My niece is 14 now, and her selfie obsession has — predictably — reached new heights. I no longer follow her on Instagram — for everybody’s sake. I admit that this is partly because I don’t want to accept that the child who used to hang onto my every word and cry whenever she had to leave my house has gone. She’s growing up, and I’m the one acting like a big baby, throwing my toys out of the crib because she’s more interested in boys and makeup and selfies and reality TV stars than hanging out with her aunt.

My generation is the last to grow up without social media, meaning our kids’ childhoods are very different. They talk about YouTube and tablets and Twitter as if these things have always existed. They don’t know what it is to go through puberty and into adulthood without FaceTime and selfies, because they’re all just an everyday part of growing up.

I have a good few years before I have to worry about my own daughter documenting her own pouting adventures across all social media channels. From what friends of older kids have told me, the best approach is to keep them on a long reign. A few of them know their teens’ social media passwords, and check their accounts occasionally to make sure nothing worrying is going on, and this seems to work well for everyone. The parents know they can dip in and out to keep any concerns at bay, and the kids know their parents are looking out for them without being too dictatorial.

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If I saw something my niece or goddaughter had posted online that had me genuinely concerned for their safety, I wouldn’t hesitate to tell their parents. But beyond that, what I’ve learnt is that if it’s not your own child, you need to butt the hell out.

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