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Child safety groups ask Facebook to scrap plans for Instagram for kids

Experts raise concerns about privacy, screen time, mental health, self-esteem and commercial pressure.
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The Instagram office in New York in June 2018.Jeenah Moon / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

An international coalition of public health and child safety advocates urged Facebook executives Thursday to abandon plans to launch a version of Instagram for children under age 13 because its members feared it would put young users at "great risk."

The coalition of 35 organizations and 64 individual experts, coordinated by the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, a Boston-based nonprofit, raised concerns about privacy, screen time, mental health, self-esteem and commercial pressure in a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

"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 letter says. "The platform's relentless focus on appearance, self-presentation, and branding presents challenges to adolescents' privacy and wellbeing."

It adds, "Younger children are even less developmentally equipped to deal with these challenges, as they are learning to navigate social interactions, friendships, and their inner sense of strengths and challenges during this crucial window of development."

BuzzFeed reported last month that Facebook was building a version of Instagram for children under 13.

Instagram spokeswoman Stephanie Otway said news of the launch leaked prematurely.

"We agree that any experience we develop must prioritize their safety and privacy, and we will consult with experts in child development, child safety and mental health, and privacy advocates to inform it," Otway said. "The reality is that kids are online. They want to connect with their family and friends, have fun and learn, and we want to help them do that in a way that is safe and age-appropriate. We also want to find practical solutions to the ongoing industry problem of kids lying about their age to access apps."

Instagram Kids will be ad-free, and it will feature parental controls, Otway said.

The coalition said the current version of Instagram was not safe for young children, and it said many children have lied about their ages to create Instagram accounts.

"However, launching a version of Instagram for children under 13 is not the right remedy and would put young users at great risk," the letter says.

Josh Golin, executive director of the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, said children who lied about their ages to join the main Instagram platform, typically ages 10 to 12, would not migrate to a kids' version because they would perceive it to be "babyish and not cool enough."

"The children this will appeal to will be much younger kids," he said. "So they are not swapping out an unsafe version of Instagram for a safer version. They are creating new demand from a new audience that's not ready for any type of Instagram product."

Childhood development experts who signed the letter stressed their concerns about Instagram's impact on children. Psychologist Jean Twenge, author of "iGen: Why Today's Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood," who signed the letter, said the site can be destructive for children.

"There's a good amount of research suggesting that Instagram is among the most toxic social media platforms because of its emphasis on image and followers," Twenge said. "My view is that there's really no way to make it completely safe for young kids."

Twenge said she hoped Facebook would instead focus on "safer, healthier platforms" for children that emphasized real-time interactions with friends, for example video chat.

"The pandemic really showed that digital communication is an essential way for kids to communicate with each other and relatives," she said. "But I have my doubts about Instagram being the way to do that."

The coalition's letter echoes concerns from Sens. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Reps. Kathy Castor, D-Fla., and Lori Trahan, D-Mass., who also wrote to Zuckerberg on April 5 after they learned about the proposed version of Instagram.

"Children are a uniquely vulnerable population online, and images of kids are highly sensitive data," the lawmakers wrote. "Facebook has an obligation to ensure that any new platforms or projects targeting children put those users' welfare first, and we are skeptical that Facebook is prepared to fulfill this obligation."

The lawmakers added, "Facebook has a record of failing to protect children's privacy and safety, casting serious doubt on its ability to do so on a version of Instagram that is marketed to children."

Earlier efforts

In 2017, Facebook launched a version of its Messenger app, called Messenger Kids, aimed at children ages 6 to 12. The app was built to ensure that children could not talk to users who had not been approved by their parents.

Shortly after the launch, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood coordinated a similar letter to Zuckerberg, signed by more than 95 advocates for child safety, arguing that the product should be discontinued. At the time, a Facebook spokesperson said the app had been developed with input from families, child safety experts and child development advocates.

In 2019, Facebook discovered a technical error in Messenger Kids that allowed children to enter group chats with strangers.

"We didn't get wind of Messenger Kids until it was rolled out," Golin said. "With Instagram Kids, which is in the very early stages, Facebook has a real opportunity to have dialogue with people who believe that the best thing for children now is to not build the product at all."