Parents, child advocates, and Big Tech critics are responding with alarm to BuzzFeed News' Thursday night reporting that Instagram, a photo-focused social network owned by Facebook, is planning to make a version for children under the age of 13—who are officially barred from both platforms but often able to access them anyway.
"If Instagram wants to do something for younger children, it should focus on getting under 13s off of the platform entirely."
—Josh Golin, CCFC
"It is deeply concerning that Instagram—a platform known for a host of troubling privacy, commercial, and design practices that undermine adolescents' well-being—is now setting its sights on even younger children," Josh Golin, executive director of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC), told Common Dreams by email.
"If Instagram wants to do something for younger children," Golin added, "it should focus on getting under 13s off of the platform entirely."
"Facebook poses one of the biggest threats when it comes to children's privacy," Abdul-Rahim said. "Increasing safeguards for children online is paramount, but the fact remains that Facebook will be harvesting children's data and profiting off their detailed profiles."
If Facebook really cares about the privacy and safety of children, it needs to radically transform its surveillance-based business model which harvests and monetizes personal data on an unprecedented scale. More https://t.co/Qgx90WVsNp
— Rasha Abdul-Rahim (@Rasha_Abdul) March 19, 2021
"Social media companies have a responsibility to protect children and young people online, but building a separate version of their platforms is not the answer," Abdul-Rahim asserted. "Facebook's very business model is built on ubiquitous and constant—which is entirely incompatible with human rights. By making users sign up to the opaque terms and conditions of Instagram, Facebook will be able to harvest huge amounts of data about children and create invasive, granular profiles that can last the rest of their lives."
Even with an age-specific platform, she added, "children will remain at risk of being bombarded with targeted advertising and incendiary content designed to keep their attention above all else. They will be left at the mercy of Facebook's algorithms that all too often amplify disinformation and divisive content in order to prioritize engagement."
BuzzFeed obtained an announcement that Instagram's vice president of product, Vishal Shah, shared Thursday on an employee message board.
"I'm excited to announce that going forward, we have identified youth work as a priority for Instagram and have added it to our H1 priority list," wrote Shah. "We will be building a new youth pillar within the Community Product Group to focus on two things: (a) accelerating our integrity and privacy work to ensure the safest possible experience for teens and (b) building a version of Instagram that allows people under the age of 13 to safely use Instagram for the first time."
As a Dad, let me be clear.
I hope your company collapses in utter ruin & scandal like Enron.
Facebook planning to create version of Instagram for children under 13.https://t.co/YmeGrmuZk4
— John B Hammer (@jbhammer) March 19, 2021
Shah said that the work will be led by Facebook's Pavni Diwanji, who previously oversaw child-focused products at Google, including the controversial YouTube Kids. The internal announcement came two days after an Instagram blog post about protecting young people, which did not mention the new project.
Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, will oversee the work. He told BuzzFeed that the company does not yet have a "detailed plan" for development but knows that "more and more kids" want to use services like Instagram.
"We have to do a lot here," Mosseri said, "but part of the solution is to create a version of Instagram for young people or kids where parents have transparency or control. It's one of the things we're exploring."
The age-13 restriction on Facebook and Instagram traces back to the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). As the Wall Street Journal detailed in 2019:
COPPA passed by a wide margin in 1998 and went into effect in April 2000—four years before Facebook and seven years before the iPhone. To this day, rather than go through the laborious process of seeking parental consent, most websites, apps, and social media platforms simply state that users must be at least 13.
Companies that collect or disclose data from kids can face civil penalties of more than $42,000 per violation, but they're liable only if they have actual knowledge that the person is younger than 13, the [Federal Trade Commission] says. If a 13-year-old—or a younger child who lies about his age—uses general-audience apps and websites, his data can legally be collected and shared.
Tech giants have come under fire for their treatment of personal data—and Facebook specifically for its "surveillance-based business model." Some critics, such as World Wide Web founder Tim Berners-Lee, argue for more user control. As Berners-Lee has said: "You should have complete control of your data. It's not oil. It's not a commodity."
An Instagram for the under-13 crowd would not be Facebook's first foray into services targeting children; in December 2017, Facebook launched Messenger Kids, which allows children under 13 to exchange text and video messages with individuals approved by their parents.
Dozens of advocacy groups, led by CCFC, responded to Messenger Kids with a letter (pdf) to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg declaring that "at a time when there is mounting concern about how social media use affects adolescents' well-being, it is particularly irresponsible to encourage children as young as preschoolers to start using a Facebook product."
"Raising children in our new digital age is difficult enough," they added. "We ask that you do not use Facebook's enormous reach and influence to make it even harder."