How Instagram Led to one Tween’s Passion Project

Chantel Guertin and her step-daughter, Penny, doing a “Steppy Sunday” video on Instagram

My tween helped both of us to find inspiration through Instagram.

It all started when Penny got an iPhone. My stepdaughter was nine at the time, which may seem young for a phone of any kind, but my husband and I had decided, back when she was eight, to start her with a BlackBerry Bold, as a way to keep in touch with her when she wasn’t with us. The BlackBerry Bold 9900 debuted in 2011; getting one in 2016 is not exactly a tween’s dream. Its only purpose is for talking. Texting is nearly impossible and forget about apps or games. So there was no real worry about her spending too much time on it. When she was at her mom’s house she could call us to say good morning and we could call her to say goodnight. She said “Thanks” with very little enthusiasm when we gave it to her for her birthday. My stepson, who is two years older, had about the same level of enthusiasm when he got a similar BlackBerry Bold when he turned eight.

But she knew the drill. Don’t lose or break the retro phone, and when you’re nine you’ll get upgraded. And she did it. So a year-and-a-half later she scored my old iPhone 5S in rose gold. And with it, she had access to the world of Instagram, Snapchat and every other app out there.

Within minutes she asked if she could get an Instagram account. Initially, we said no. We were already aware of our friends’ opinions about our decision to allow our kids to have phones so young, and we were conscious of the pressure it can put on other parents when their kids come home from school saying that other kids in their class have phones. Trust me, I get it. And if my stepkids lived with us full-time, we definitely wouldn’t give them phones. My son, who is four, is certainly not getting a phone when he’s seven, or eight, or nine, or even 10. But if you are divorced, and even a day goes by where you don’t see your kids, then you get it. The phone was our lifeline to Penny. But the apps? That, we weren’t sure about.

And yet, neither of us wanted to ban it. I follow the theory of “everything in moderation” in both my own life and parenting and social media seemed to fall under that heading. Wasn’t it better to allow her access to the app, with parameters, discussion, and monitoring, than to outright forbid it?

And so I helped her create a private account and she began posting selfies with captions like #Hiiieeeee and #relaxin, as you might expect a nine-year-old to do.

It was completely harmless, but I worried that as the years passed, the selfies would become more staged, and there’d be more doe eyes, more crop tops. And more focus on the number of likes she got with each post. And all this would not only distract her from the things she’s passionate about, that bring her joy, but that she’s good at, too. I wanted her to spend her time solving tricky math problems and swimming—activities she loves and that boost her self-esteem—rather than staring at a screen where a few posted negative comments could send her into a perfect storm of self-loathing. A recent study by a team of economists at the University of Sheffield showed that the more time children spend on social media apps, the less happy they feel about their school work, the school they attend, their family and their life overall. But surely I could prevent this from happening to Penny.

Except, I often felt the same way when I opened up my own Instagram account. The key, I figured, was to help her find a way to use Instagram so that it was not only fun but also connected to the activities that build her confidence. So that the app had no control over her self-esteem or her happiness. But how could I teach her to use her Instagram account to make a difference, when I wasn’t exactly changing the world with my own account?

I have a love-hate relationship with Instagram. Since I mostly use it to complement my on-air work, the account itself feels like work. And to be good at work, I believe you need passion—something I definitely lacked when it came to my Instagram feed. But I didn’t want to spend more time figuring out how to bring passion to the time I spend on Instagram because to do so would eat into my time with my kids.

And then, the idea came to me: #steppysunday.

I pictured Penny and I posing, perhaps in cute, matching outfits, on steps, every Sunday. Of course, we’d have to find steps to stand on, and I’d need to source matching outfits. And probably shoes, too. So more time, more money… And yet, I shared the idea with Penny to see what she thought.

She liked the concept immediately, and I think, the chance for us to do something together. But she balked at the execution. “Shouldn’t we do something about beauty? That’s your job and that’s what your feed is all about. What if we make a video—we could give viewers a beauty tip each week.”

It was a great idea. It felt authentic, useful and fun.

And so we filmed our first video, a self-care tip about making your own facemasks. Penny looked up the recipe and made the mask, and then we applied it, a mixture of butter, honey, and lemon. It was fun to make, and if you’re wondering, the mask, while very messy, was soothing (even if I felt a little like a turkey).

It’s now been eight months since we made our first video, and for the most part, we post every week. Penny takes it seriously. She researches ideas and tests them out. She preps our supplies so it’s ready to go. I look forward to our time together every week. And if I forget, it’s Penny who reminds me. She never forgets about our videos.

Lately, I’ve been travelling on Sundays, and rather than using that as an excuse not to make videos, Penny reminds me as soon as we wake up that we need to make a #steppysunday video before I go. The fact that I’m short on time on Sundays means that we’re actually making time to be together. And it’s time spent creating. We don’t fuss over our hair or makeup, or even worry about what we’re wearing. Any time and energy we have is put into being creative and resourceful and natural and real. And it’s fun. Really fun. And it shows in the end result, I think.

A few months ago a hair care brand that I already use and like—sent an email.  “We love your #steppysunday videos with your stepdaughter. Are you and Penny interested in doing a sponsored post together?”

And so we did. We came up with a concept, and then, because the video had to look more professional than our typical videos, I hired a director and camerawoman to help us. On a hot, sunny, summer afternoon when I am sure Penny would’ve rather been at the pool with her friends, we were inside, filming. The whole shoot took about two hours because it was a lot more complicated than our standard one-minute video, and I worried Penny would start to lose interest or complain; that it would be too much work. But she was a pro through the entire process, even suggesting we wear sweaters despite the heat, because the video, post approvals, would air in the fall. She wanted to get it right—because this time, the video was a job.

After that shoot, I wondered if Penny would only want to make videos if they were paid, or with a professional team, but as the crew was packing up, she turned to me. “I’ve already got an idea for next week’s video,” she said. “Ice cubes.” That’s all she’d tell me.

On Penny’s private account, she’s still posting selfies. Her captions tell more of a story though, and the selfies are interspersed with pictures of other things going on in her life, too, like the recent picture of her and Toronto Mayor John Tory. She was chosen to be the master of ceremonies at a National Child’s Day event after she presented an impressive one-minute speech that she wrote, memorized and rehearsed to perfection. Maybe she would’ve landed the MC role without the practice the dozens of one-minute videos we’ve created together over the past eight months have given her. But I’m pretty sure those hours on camera have only helped her poise, voice projection, eye contact, and confidence—and taught her disciple and drive. And that’s something to like about Instagram.

Chantel Guertin is an author, on-air beauty expert on the Marilyn Denis Show, and an instructor at Centennial College, where she helps students turn their passions into their dream careers.


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