Would a new, kids version of Instagram be a good thing, or could it negatively impact the development of youngsters through increased social pressure, and exploitative algorithms?
The latter is where childhood development experts are leaning - in response to recent reports that Facebook is considering a junior version of the popular visual app, aimed at those under the age of 13, an international coalition of 35 children’s and consumer groups has today called on Facebook to halt any plans for an 'Instagram for Kids', outlining various concerns around the proposal.
As reported by the New York Times, the coalition - which includes the Consumer Federation of America and the Parents Television and Media Council - says that not only would the project fail to see youngsters currently active in the main app switch over to the kid-safe version, which is a key motivation for the tool, but it could also negatively impact a wider range of children via Facebook's established processes.
As per the letter:
"Children between the ages of 10 and 12 who have existing Instagram accounts are unlikely to migrate to a “babyish” version of the platform after they have experienced the real thing. The true audience for a kids’ version of Instagram will be much younger children who do not currently have accounts on the platform."
The letter outlines a range of potential harms that could be caused by a dedicated 'Instagram for Kids' app, particularly for youngsters at a key developmental stage:
"A growing body of research demonstrates that excessive use of digital devices and social media is harmful to adolescents. Instagram, in particular, exploits young people’s fear of missing out and desire for peer approval to encourage children and teens to constantly check their devices and share photos with their followers. The platform’s relentless focus on appearance, self-presentation, and branding presents challenges to adolescents’ privacy and wellbeing."
Facebook hasn't decided on whether to launch an Instagram for Kids as yet, but it is something being discussed, with Instagram chief Adam Mosseri recently noting that they are exploring the option to cater for younger users, and stop those youngsters from seeking ways to cheat the system and create accounts in the main app instead.
And a lot of young people do currently use Instagram, despite the age restriction. According to research, tens of thousands of minors are not only active in the app, but are also exposing their personal information, often unwittingly, in an effort to utilize expanded tools within the app.
As discovered by researcher David Stier, some kids are switching their personal IG profiles to business ones in order to access the platform's in-depth analytics tools, and in doing so, they're also sharing their contact and post information publicly, potentially opening themselves up to further harm. That's what Instagram is looking to combat with a dedicated kids app - and while that may seem like a logical, even beneficial approach, experts are now sounding the alarm on the idea.
The letter further criticizes Facebook's business approach, which is based on data-gathering.
"While collecting valuable family data and cultivating a new generation of Instagram users may be good for Facebook’s bottom line, it will likely increase the use of Instagram by young children who are particularly vulnerable to the platform’s manipulative and exploitative features."
The experts also take aim at Facebook's history on such, and data misuse more broadly:
"Facebook’s long track record of exploiting young people and putting them at risk makes the company particularly unsuitable as the custodian of a photo sharing and social messaging site for children. Leaked documents have revealed that Facebook boasted to advertisers that it could target teens at the exact moment they were feeling bad about themselves, including when they have negative thoughts about their bodies. Another report from Reveal showed that Facebook employees referred to children who racked up thousands of dollars in credit card charges through in-game purchases as “whales,” a term casinos use to classify incredibly lucrative high rollers."
Those references definitely don't paint a good picture of the company, and its capacity to prioritize the protection of younger users. But still, it does seem that raising some of these past concerns weakens the core argument in the current sense.
Yes, Facebook has made mistakes in the past, and that's a valid point, but it has also implemented significant, systemic advances and processes to improve on these fronts since.
Indeed, Instagram itself recently added a range of new limitations to protect younger users, including a full block on adults from sending messages to any users under the age of 18 who don’t follow them.
The platform is working to improve in this respect, and while a dedicated Instagram for Kids app may not be the ultimate solution, it is part of the ongoing discussion around youth protection, which is relevant, even if it may be uncomfortable.
But the experts do raise some valid concerns, and they may well be enough for Facebook to scrap the idea entirely. Or they'll spur the company to push harder in order to prove the doubters wrong - and they could use the success of Messenger Kids as an argument to counter many of these claims (though the letter does also note that an early design flaw in Facebook’s Messenger Kids allowed young children to circumvent parental controls and chat with strangers).
Either way, these are important discussions to have, and issues to address, especially as social platforms become a more integral element in our communications landscape.