As adults, we know the pitfalls of social media: the screen-time addiction, the misinformation, the bullying, the predators. So when your tween comes to you with a request for a dance-focused Instagram account, it's natural to initially be opposed. But completely prohibiting its use is not realistic in our increasingly digital world. "It's the social norm these days," says Danielle Zar, a licensed professional counselor who specializes in parent education. "Not letting your teen or tween on social media can affect their peer relationships."
So how can you give your dancer some autonomy, but also ensure her social-media usage is safe and healthy? Here, Zar and dance dad Chad Hatala—who monitors daughters Taylor and Reese Hatala's verified accounts with a cumulative following of nearly 1.8 million—offer their advice. The key? Finding what works for your family, because it's not one-size-fits-all.
1. Create ground rules—with your dancer.
"Children are more likely to stick to rules when they had a hand in setting them," says Zar. "If it's a rule about screen-time limits, hear her out. Maybe one hour a day isn't enough time for her to edit a photo or set captions." No matter what, make sure your dancer knows never to share personal information or her location, and never to say anything online that she wouldn't say to someone in person, cautions Zar.
2. Keep a line of communication open and ongoing.
When Hatala first helped his then 9-year-old daughter Taylor set up an Instagram account, they'd post captions together and talk regularly about comments received. Taylor is now 17, but "she still comes to me with nearly every post, asking me to proofread her captions or see if something is right for her audience," Hatala says. "If communication like this starts at an early age, it just continues." He also notes that Instagram has sparked constructive conversations. "It's a great tool to open discussions about topics that may be uncomfortable," he says. "It forces our kids to think about their actions and helps foster a sense of maturity."
3. Actively monitor the account, and let your dancer know you are doing so.
One way of keeping tabs on your young dancer's account is to set up notifications on your own phone. While Hatala admits this is no longer feasible for him (his daughters' accounts receive far too many notifications), he has access to both Reese's and Taylor's accounts and checks each multiple times every day, keeping an eye out for hateful comments and predatory messages. "My wife and I learned early on that constant monitoring is necessary," he says. "Parents are able to pick up on things that seem fishy or inappropriate."
In Zar's experience, not all parents feel it's necessary to access their children's passwords and instead follow the account and provide guidance as needed. This decision should be based on your child's maturity and your relationship, rather than an arbitrary age-based rule, she says.
Above all, be honest with your dancer. "Don't secretly check the account," says Zar. "Honoring your child's autonomy helps her learn how to make choices and regulate what she's doing."
4. Watch for red flags of overuse and know when it's time to take a break.
Instagram can be a great learning tool for dancers—opening their eyes to other dancers or styles and, in Taylor Hatala's case, launching a career. But the app can place undue pressure on your dancer, especially if she starts comparing herself to others or gets bogged down in likes or followers.
"There's real science behind why social media is so habit-forming," says Zar. "Getting a lot of likes or comments triggers your brain to release dopamine, which feels good, and there's a natural drive to continue seeking that." But when does that habit become unhealthy? "When your daughter isn't on the app, is she still thinking about it or talking about it?" asks Zar. "If she's finding it hard to be present, or gets angry or combative when it's time to put it away, it shows she is unable to let go." In these cases, talk with your child and collaborate on a plan to limit the app's use. If your child is exhibiting signs of depression and/or anxiety while using social media or afterward, seek help from a mental health provider.
"Remind them that social media is not a true reflection of who you are," Hatala says. "You're putting out little glimpses of your life or snapshots of your dancing—but it's not the whole picture."