In September last year, the National Cybersecurity Alliance released the results of their study into the online safety attitudes and behaviors of families. In their research, they asked parents and children about their experiences online, what types of social accounts they had, how their families interacted with social media, and what challenges they faced. And their findings have brought to light an issue concerning both parents and educators: the majority of adults are quite unaware of what teens are doing online.
What do I mean? The researchers found that over 60% of teens claimed to have online accounts that their parents were unaware of. Conversely, only 28% of those parents suspected their teens of having these secret accounts. Clearly, there's a disconnect.
A prime example of the type of accounts that many parents are unaware of are "finstas".
What The Heck Is Finsta?
Don't feel bad if you don't know what that term is. "Finsta" is a shortened word that is used to refer to a fake Instagram account that someone would have.
Fake + Instagram = Finstagram = Finsta.
The general way in which people use Instagram is as a platform to reach as many people as possible, in the hopes that it can help them achieve a modicum of fame.
A finsta account, conversely, is shared only with the person's closest friends, and may in fact be more "real".
One example of this is teen user Amy Wesson - Wesson has more than 2,700 Instagram followers, but only 50 followers on her secondary Finstagram account. When asked about the difference between the two, Wesson noted that she uses finsta to "post things you wouldn't want people other than your friends to see, like unattractive pictures, random stories about your day and drunk pictures from parties."
Teens are savvy enough to realize that social media presents a constructed image rather than a reality, but the pressure of achieving that image can be exhausting, and the fear of failing to live up to the "perfect" online persona can have devastating consequences for some.
Many would no doubt recall the recent ESPN the Magazine investigation into the life and tragic death of Madison Holleran, a track star from the University of Pennsylvania who took her own life last January, reportedly due to depression fuelled by an unrealistic expectation of happiness.
"Young women growing up on Instagram are spending a significant chunk of each day absorbing others' filtered images while they walk through their own realities, unfiltered," writes Kate Fagan. "In a recent survey conducted by the Girl Scouts, nearly 74% of girls agreed that other girls tried to make themselves look 'cooler than they are' on social networking sites."
You might be thinking that if this is the case, wouldn't a smaller, "realer" social media account be good for teens and their self-esteem? Unfortunately, it's not as simple as that. While these private accounts can serve as an outlet for those wishing to have a more genuine experience with social media, they can also lead to a heightened (false) sense of security in what they share online.
The growing use of Finstas by teens should be a source of concern for parents and educators because there are even fewer rules and more (perceived) anonymity. For many teens, Finsta is "just for fun". But that is, of course, until it isn't - what they post is anonymous, till someone finds their secondary account, it's all harmless until it becomes malicious. And the anonymous nature of this type of behavior makes it incredibly difficult to confront, process, or even prevent.
Is It Really A Bad Thing That Your Teen Has A Finsta?
On the one hand, a fake Instagram account demonstrates an awareness of the dangers of posting to a general audience vs. a smaller group of friends. The concern then is that a teen will feel comfortable posting sensitive content to their Finsta account, or using it to anonymously harass others, safe in the assumption that they will not be exposed.
Additionally, they could be feeling pressure from their peers to have a Finsta (as noted in this article about Finstagram from a teen's perspective), and use it irresponsibly. Even the most level-headed and socially responsible teens can eventually succumb to the temptation to use an anonymous account in a malicious way.
It would also be reasonable to ask - as this NY Times article does - about the very notion for the need for a finsta account in the first place. If a teen's Instagram profile and photos were a true reflection of their lives, a fake account shouldn't be necessary.
As a commenter on that article puts it:
"So, the real Instagram accounts are their fake selves, and the fake accounts are their real selves"
It's important for parents and educators alike to become well-versed in all forms of social media use - and Finstas are no different. Without such knowledge, it can be extremely difficult for parents and educators to accurately understand the mental and emotional impact of these types of accounts on their children and students.
What Should You Do If You Suspect Your Teen Has A Fake Account?
Talk to them. Find out if and how they're using a fake Instagram account, and continue to discuss the importance of using judgement both on and offline.
It's important to keep reminding teens (and adults for that matter) that the internet is written in pen, not pencil. Any photo or video posted to a Finsta account is out of a user's control the moment it's posted. The group of friends that a teen trusts is often a very fluid group, and all it takes is one so called friend to take a screenshot and share it outside that group to set off a chain of events that could have drastic consequences for all involved