Facebook on Monday announced it’s putting its plans to launch a version of Instagram for kids on hold.
The move comes following a report in the Wall Street Journal that Instagram is harmful to young people and congressional pressure to scrap the project.
“We started this project to address an important problem seen across our industry: kids are getting phones younger and younger, misrepresenting their age, and downloading apps that are meant for those 13 or older,” Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram wrote in a company blog.
“We firmly believe that it’s better for parents to have the option to give their children access to a version of Instagram that is designed for them — where parents can supervise and control their experience — than relying on an app’s ability to verify the age of kids who are too young to have an ID,” he continued.
“While we stand by the need to develop this experience,” he added, “we’ve decided to pause this project. This will give us time to work with parents, experts, policymakers and regulators, to listen to their concerns, and to demonstrate the value and importance of this project for younger teens online today.”
Not a Bad Idea
In a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg earlier this month, three members of Congress called on the company to shelve plans to the proposed application.
“As the internet — and social media specifically — becomes increasingly engrained in children and teens’ lives, we are deeply concerned that your company continues to fail in its obligation to protect young users and has yet to commit to halt its plans to launch new platforms targeting children and teens,” wrote Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., and Reps. Kathy Castor, D-Fla., and Lori Trahan, D-Mass.
“The recently uncovered evidence published in the Wall Street Journal underscores Facebook’s responsibility to fundamentally change its approach to engaging with children and teens online,” they continued.
“That starts with Facebook abandoning its plans to launch a new version of Instagram for kids,” they added.
Mosseri wrote that critics of the Instagram proposal will see Facebook’s move as an admission that Instagram Kids is a bad idea.
“That’s not the case,” he noted. “The reality is that kids are already online, and we believe that developing age-appropriate experiences designed specifically for them is far better for parents than where we are today.”
“We’re not the only company to think so,” he added. “Our peers recognized these issues and built experiences for kids. YouTube and TikTok have versions of their app for those under 13.”
New Parental Tools
Although Instagram is putting Kids on hold, Mosseri explained the company will be making new features available to parents to oversee their children’s accounts.
He noted that the new features, which parents and teens can opt into, will give parents the tools to meaningfully shape their teen’s experience.
How effective such tools will be remains an open question.
“Kids that want to do things outside their parents’ control just create two accounts — one that they show to their parents and one they don’t. That’s always been the case,” said Karen Kovacs North, director of the Annenberg Program on Online Communities at the University of Southern California.
“It’s not hard for kids to create an account with a different age, show their parents an account showing the kid hanging out at school in study groups — but then there’s another account that’s the party account,” she told TechNewsWorld.
She noted that social media companies have come under increased scrutiny in recent times over their impact on the emotional well-being of young people.
“There’s enough public scrutiny that Facebook has decided to stop and make sure they have a more comprehensive review and strategy before moving forward,” she said.
Until now, North explained that companies like Facebook have had the luxury of introducing new products and features, evaluating their impact and quickly revamping them based those evaluations.
“Big Silicon Valley companies believe that no one is going to leave their site or app,” she observed. “Users are just going to adapt.”
“But there’s so much scrutiny on this topic that,” she continued, “Facebook and Instagram decided to pause, regroup and move forward only after more consideration.”
Pervasive Source of Stress
As anyone who attended high school knows, emotional stress on young people existed long before social media, but North described that social media adds another dimension to the picture.
“It’s pervasive,” she said. “You can never escape it if you’re on social media.”
“You can’t get a reality check on it,” she observed. “In real life, if someone says something that’s embellished or distorted, even if people jump in to agree and celebrate that person, you might see others shaking their heads or walking away.”
“There’s a balance of reactions,” she said. “On social media, a lot of social cues are lost.”
While there may be a need for something like Instagram for Kids, the question is should Facebook be behind it, noted Vincent Raynauld, an associate professor in the department of communication studies Emerson College in Boston.
“Facebook has been plagued with privacy and security issues over the years so there’s some question about whether it should be allowed to put together a platform for children,” he told TechNewsWorld.
He noted that there are a lot of important questions about the backend of the kids operation.
“How are they dealing with the private information that kids are sharing online?” he asked.
“On the front end it sounds like a good idea, but on the backend there are a lot of questions related to how Facebook would protect to the privacy and security of the information it receives from the kids,” he said.
Instagram’s treatment of stakeholders in the kids app has also been less than desirable.
“Announcing they were going to engage with certain stakeholders after they were launching the program is an issue,” Raynauld maintained. “They should have engaged with stakeholders first.”
“Failing to frame the project as a collaboration with different stakeholders is an issue,” he added.
He advocated more formal education for both kids and parents about social media.
“Before we let kids on the road, they need to get a driver’s license,” he explained. “When they start a job, they get job training. But within schools right now there’s little to no training when it comes to social media.”
“The best protection there is for kids on these platforms is educating young people on how these platforms work, on the repercussions of what they do on these platforms on their immediate life and their future personal and professional reputation,” Raynauld advised.