A coalition of 36 organizations and 64 experts in child development and the impact of technology sent a letter Thursday to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg discouraging the ongoing development of an Instagram specifically designed for children ages 12 and under.
"It is beyond cynical that Instagram is using its failure to comply with the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act and its failure to protect kids as an excuse to target younger children."
—Josh Golin, CCFC
Facebook acquired the photo- and video-sharing social media platform for $1 billion in 2012. Both Facebook and Instagram are officially restricted to users ages 13 and older, which traces back to the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).
Reporting last month that an Instagram for kids was in the earlier stages of development provoked fierce criticism from parents and advocates, including leaders at Amnesty Tech and Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC).
The new letter (pdf) to Zuckerberg was written and organized by CCFC, which has also launched a petition urging Facebook to refrain from targeting children with a new platform and instead invest in educating parents that Instagram isn't for kids and identifying and closing accounts of young people who have lied about their ages.
"It is beyond cynical that Instagram is using its failure to comply with the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act and its failure to protect kids as an excuse to target younger children," said CCFC executive director Josh Golin in a statement.
"Instagram's business model relies on extensive data collection, maximizing time on devices, promoting a culture of oversharing and idolizing influencers," he noted, "as well as a relentless focus on (often altered) physical appearance—and it is certainly not appropriate for seven-year-olds."
James P. Steyer, founder and CEO of Common Sense—one of the groups that signed on to the letter—concurred. As he put it: "Facebook has gone back to their old bag of tricks, coming up with another product designed to get kids hooked when they are at their most vulnerable.
"While tweens online deserve safe and protected environments, Facebook and Instagram have zero credibility and have proven time and time again that their priority is profiting off their manipulative and addictive tactics to keep users scrolling," Steyer said. "What Mark Zuckerberg should do instead of targeting young customers is take the billions of dollars Facebook reaps every year from amplifying harmful content and instead invest in making a healthy and privacy protective product for adults."
Other signatories include Accountable Tech, Africa Digital Rights' Hub, Australian Council on Children and the Media, Berkeley Media Studies Group, Center for Health Science and Law in Canada, Child Online Africa, Consumer Action, Consumer Federation of America, Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), Every Child Protected Against Trafficking U.K., Network for Public Education, Norwegian Cancer Society, Public Citizen, and Reset Australia.
Proudly signed @globalactplan onto this excellent letter coordinated by @commercialfree. Don't believe for a second that Zuck expects 11/12 yr olds to switch to a 'babyish' version of Instagram. This is about capturing the very young. https://t.co/FJcbAOHepg
— Oliver Hayes (@olliehayes) April 15, 2021
Individuals who endorsed the letter include University of St. Gallen professor Veronica Barassi, author of Child Data Citizen; Patrick Burton, executive director of the Center for Justice and Crime Prevention in South Africa and co-author of various studies; psychologist Richard Freed, author of Wired Child: Reclaiming Childhood in a Digital Age; and Susan Linn, a lecturer in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood.
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The letter details concerns that an Instagram for kids would "exploit" rapid developmental changes children experience in the elementary and middle school years, highlights the growing body of research which "demonstrates that excessive use of digital devices and social media is harmful to adolescents," suggests that children already on Instagram "are unlikely to migrate to a 'babyish' version of the platform," and notes Facebook's troubling track record when it comes to young people.
"In short, an Instagram site for kids will subject young children to a number of serious risks and will offer few benefits for families," the groups warn, pointing to a letter (pdf) that Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) as well as Reps. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.) and Lori Trahan (D-Mass.) sent to Zuckerberg last week.
"If Facebook's objective is to decrease the number of users under the age of 13 on its current Instagram platform, it should invest in efforts to do that directly," says the lawmakers' letter, also noting relevant studies and the company's record. "The alternative approach that Facebook appears poised to take—specifically, pushing kids to sign up for a new platform that may itself pose threats to young users' privacy and well-being—involves serious challenges and may do more harm than good."
The lawmakers requested a response from Facebook to 14 detailed questions about the company's Instagram for kids work by April 26.
Despite alarm among health advocates and lawmakers, Facebook doesn't seem inclined to drop the plan. According to the New York Times:
Stephanie Otway, a Facebook spokeswoman, said that Instagram was in the early stages of developing a service for children as part of an effort to keep those under 13 off its main platform. Although Instagram requires users to be at least 13, many younger children have lied about their age to set up accounts.
Ms. Otway said that company would not show ads in any Instagram product developed for children younger than 13, and that it planned to consult with experts on children's health and safety on the project. Instagram is also working on new age-verification methods to catch younger users trying to lie about their age, she said.
"The reality is that kids are online," Ms. Otway said. "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."
Signatory and American University professor emerita Kathryn Montgomery—a senior strategist at the Center for Digital Democracy, which also signed on to the letter as an organization—said Thursday that "Facebook claims that creating an 'Instagram for kids' will help keep them safe on the platform."
"But the company's real goal is to expand its lucrative and highly profitable Instagram franchise to an even younger demographic, introducing children to a powerful commercialized social media environment that poses serious threats to their privacy, health, and well-being," she said. "Given its failures to protect the public from disinformation, hate speech, and manipulation, parents cannot trust Facebook's promises to protect young children."