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Documents reveal Facebook targeted children as young as 6 for consumer base

Facebook was hiring employees to build out programs for children and young adults from ages 6 to 17, according to a company blog post.
Image: Facebook Inc. Campus
Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif. David Paul Morris / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

Internal documents show that Facebook has been actively hiring employees to build products that target children as young as 6 to expand its user base.

“Our company is making a major investment in youth and has spun up a cross-company virtual team to make safer, more private, experiences for youth that improve their and their household’s well-being,” wrote the author of a blog, whose name was redacted before NBC News was able to review the document. “For many of our products, we historically haven’t designed for under 13.”

In the internal blog post published April 9, the author wrote that the company planned to hire several positions as it expanded into offering its full range of products to children younger than its current threshold of 13 years old. Diagrams illustrate proposed new target age groups, ranging from kids 6 to 9 years old and tweens 10 to 12 years old -- along with existing targets of early teens from 13 to 15 years old, late teens from 16 to 17 years old, and adults. 

“These five age groups can be used to define education, transparency, controls and defaults that will meet the needs of young users,” wrote the Facebook employee.

Critics of the company say these documents are part of a long-standing pattern of Facebook attempting to attract younger users as early as possible. 

“Facebook and Instagram have repeatedly shown that they simply can’t be trusted when it comes to the well-being of children and teens,” said James Steyer, the founder and CEO of Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization that researches the relationship between children and the digital world. “They need to focus on cleaning up their existing platforms instead of trying to hook more children to their addictive platforms at younger and younger ages.”

Facebook responded to a request for comment by referring to a blog post it had written in response to The Wall Street Journal’s coverage of its efforts to attract younger audiences. “Companies that operate in a highly competitive space — including the Wall Street Journal — make efforts to appeal to younger generations. Considering that our competitors are doing the same thing, it would actually be newsworthy if Facebook didn’t do this work,” the post said.

The documents were included in disclosures made to the Securities and Exchange Commission and provided to Congress in redacted form by legal counsel for Frances Haugen, who worked as a Facebook product manager until May and has come forward as a whistleblower. Digital versions of the disclosures — with some names and other personal information redacted — were obtained by a consortium of news organizations, including NBC News. Most of the documents are digital photographs of company material on computer screens.

The post was shared on Facebook’s internal message board. “We have a few researchers across the company kick-starting this virtual team and are hiring more as this work unfolds,” wrote the author, explaining that the team was planning to expand by hiring people with experience in “global research among youth (particularly kids, tweens, and their caregivers).” The post lists jobs for categories like Messenger Kids/Youth Platform and Instagram Child Safety and shared the name of the hiring manager for each role, which was redacted. Messenger Kids is a video calling and messaging app created by Facebook that is currently available for kids.

A diagram from an April 9 internal post at Facebook titled “The internet wasn’t built with young people in mind, but we’re about to change that” describes how products are offered to different age groups and a vision for future offerings.Obtained by NBC News

The post includes a diagram titled “Where we’ve been and where we’re going ... ” explaining how the company plans to expand to audiences below its current threshold of 13. The document cites the Federal Trade Commission’s current regulations around online services directed to children under 13 years old, called the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule, or COPPA. 

In a diagram describing how the company currently works with young users, a note explains why the company has had a cutoff at age 13. “The COPPA line is simple: we treat 13+ like other users and ask younger people not to use our products.” The adjacent diagram is titled “And in the future” and the “stop” line that represents current restrictions is removed and replaced by tiers of users including “Tweens 10-12” and “Kids 6-9.” The slide doesn’t explain how the company would navigate current COPPA restrictions in the future.

Illustrations from an April 9 internal post at Facebook titled “The internet wasn’t built with young people in mind, but we’re about to change that” show the five different age groups the company was evaluating to “define education, transparency, controls and defaults that will meet the needs of young users.”Obtained by NBC News

In a slide titled “Youth design requires attention to cognitive and social maturity,” cartoon characters are used to describe different age groups, as young as kids 6 to 9 years old.

The post came just one week before a coalition of 35 organizations and 64 individual experts, coordinated by Fairplay, formerly known as 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.

“These documents make clear that instead of working to make its existing platforms less harmful to teens, Facebook’s priority was to ensnare younger children and create a pipeline of lifetime users of Facebook products,” Fairplay’s executive director Josh Golin told NBC News. “Despite Facebook’s claims that their motivation for Instagram for Kids is to create a safer experience for preteens, it’s clear the real reason is Facebook is fixated on kids to drive growth. Facebook products aren’t safe for younger children, and a company that consistently puts profits ahead of young people’s well-being has no business building platforms for kids.”

In September, the head of Instagram, Adam Mosseri announced that the company would pause development of a version of the photo sharing app for children. “I still firmly believe that it’s a good thing to build a version of Instagram that’s designed to be safe for tweens, but we want to take the time to talk to parents and researchers and safety experts and get to more consensus about how to move forward,” he told Craig Melvin on NBC's “TODAY” show.

Facebook spokesperson Nkechi Nneji said that "while we’re still hiring these roles, they’ll largely focus on new features we’re building for teens (13-17) and parents.