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Instagram's new protections for teens come as experts say tween venture poses big risks

The move follows pushback at launch of an Instagram service for children under 13.

Instagram has introduced protections for its teenage users to default young people into private accounts and make it harder for "suspicious" adults to make unwanted contact, the company announced Tuesday.

Instagram, the photo-sharing app owned by Facebook, has also restricted targeting options for advertisers who want to promote their products to teen users.

"Creating an experience on Instagram that's safe and private for young people, but also fun, comes with competing challenges," the company said in a blog post announcing the changes. "We want them to easily make new friends and keep up with their interests, but we don't want them to deal with unwanted DMs or comments from strangers."

Starting this week, when people under 18 join Instagram, the accounts default to private. That means people have to follow the users to see and comment on their content. The company will also show users who already have public accounts a notification highlighting the benefits of switching to a private account and explaining how to do it. The change will bring Facebook into compliance with the U.K.'s new Age Appropriate Design Code, a set of rules from the country's data protection authority that requires all online platforms to default the accounts of users under age 18 to the strictest privacy settings.

The company said it has also developed a tool that automatically detects potentially suspicious adult accounts and stops those accounts from interacting with teens' accounts on the app. An adult's account might be marked as suspicious if it has been blocked or reported by multiple teen accounts, said Instagram's head of public policy, Karina Newton in a separate interview. Once they are flagged, adults won't be shown teen accounts in discovery tools. They also won't be able to follow young people's accounts, leave comments on their posts or see comments from teens on other people's accounts.

"We are creating an additional buffer around young people," said Newton, noting that the company had already restricted adults from sending direct messages to users under 18 who didn't follow them.

Instagram already has policies prohibiting unsolicited interactions with minors, including initiating contact and requesting sexual content or favors. The new system is designed to prevent contact from being made in the first place.

"We are trying to figure out if an adult is exhibiting suspicious behavior," Newton said. "The adult might not have broken the rules yet, but might be doing things that make us look at them more deeply."

Newton said Instagram has also invested more heavily in automated tools to detect whether someone was under or over 18 without requiring them to submit copies of their real-world identities.

"Understanding people's age on the internet is a complex challenge," Newton said. "Collecting people's ID is not the answer to the problem as it's not a fair, equitable solution. Access depends greatly on where you live and how old you are. And people don't necessarily want to give their IDs to internet services."

Newton said Instagram was using artificial intelligence to better understand age by looking for text-based signals, such as comments about users' birthday. The technology doesn't try to determine age by analyzing people's faces in photos, she said.

The company is also in "really early conversations" exploring industrywide measures like having apps like Instagram verify ages through devices' operating systems, Newton said — for example, if parents added a child's age to a phone or an iPad that had parental controls.

Starting in a few weeks, advertisers will be restricted in how they can target users under age 18 on Instagram, Facebook and Messenger. They will be allowed to target them based only on their ages, genders and locations and will no longer be able to target them based on their interests or activities on other apps and websites.

Mending fences

Global Action Plan, a coalition of child safety and privacy experts, has been calling for social media companies, including Facebook and Google, for almost a year to stop using "precision targeted and highly manipulative" advertising on children.

"On the face of it, those are positive developments," said Oliver Hayes, policy and campaigns lead at Global Action Plan. "As our campaign makes the case, there's no good reason to track every movement of under-18s in order to target them with ads when they are at their most vulnerable. But, as ever, the devil will be in the details. Facebook is not going to give up on their central business model, which is monetizing our attention to raise a huge amount of ad revenue."

The same age-detecting technology can be used to detect whether someone is under 13, the minimum age to use the main Instagram app, and funnel younger users into a separate, yet-to-launch version of the app designed for tweens, Newton said.

When BuzzFeed News first reported that Instagram planned to launch a version of the app for users under 13 in March, there was widespread backlash from child protection groups. In April an international coalition of 35 organizations led by the Boston-based nonprofit Fairplay, previously known as the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, and 64 experts called on Instagram to scrap plans for the launch over fears that it would put young users at "great risk." The coalition raised concerns about privacy, screen time, mental health, self-esteem and commercial pressure in a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

In May, 40 state attorneys general echoed the coalition's concerns, also urging Zuckerberg to abandon plans to launch a version of Instagram for under-13s.

"Every one of these changes are things that advocates and regulators have been pushing hard on," said Josh Golin, executive director of Fairplay. "It's clear that Facebook is feeling the pressure to provide a safer and less exploitative experience for young people.

"If they had these tools to identify under-18s and under-13s, why weren't they using them all along?" Golin added. "We are concerned that Facebook is only interested in kicking under-13s off Instagram if they have another home for them. We still have all the same concerns for Instagram for tweens or younger kids."

Newton said the Instagram-for-tweens product was still in development in "deep consultation with experts in child development and privacy advocates" so the product addresses the "needs of families and youth."

"Instagram as it exists today was designed for people older than 13," Newton said. "We're looking to build something that's compelling for tweens and works for parents."