Google and YouTube have already had to deal with the wrath of the federal government over the illegal targeting of children with advertising and violating their privacy. But Facebook appears to want to dip its toes into the morass of child safety and privacy issues that come with building a version of Instagram for kids under 13, and 44 U.S. attorneys general are asking the company to please, kindly, not do that.
"The attorneys general urge Facebook to abandon these plans," the coalition of AGs, led by Massachusetts AG Maura Healey, write in their Monday letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. "Use of social media can be detrimental to the health and well-being of children, who are not equipped to navigate the challenges of having a social media account. Further, Facebook has historically failed to protect the welfare of children on its platforms."
While Instagram and Facebook are available to children ages 13 and up, and not all parents are even comfortable with kids using social media at 13, Facebook has announced its intentions to build an Instagram Kids app, to go along with the Messenger Kids app it already has.
The attorneys point to the fact that Messenger Kids has already proven problematic, when in 2019 a report found that the app "contained a significant design flaw that allowed children to circumvent restrictions on online interactions."
"It appears that Facebook is not responding to a need, but instead creating one, as this platform appeals primarily to children who otherwise do not or would not have an Instagram account," the letter says.
As The Hill reports, Facebook isn't backing down from the project, but issued a statement in response to the attorneys' letter.
"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. We also look forward to working with legislators and regulators, including the nation’s attorneys general," the statement reads.
BuzzFeed News first broke the story of the proposed Instagram Kids — or whatever it will be called — back in March, after obtaining a leaked email from Instagram’s vice president of product, Vishal Shah. In the email, Shah refers to "youth work" as a priority for Instagram, and he says, "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."
The move seems like an obvious ploy for Facebook to seize on the youth marketplace and expand its user base, the growth of which has slowed in recent years.
Instagram chief Adam Mosseri told BuzzFeed that the company knows that "more and more kids" want to use apps like Instagram (ahem, he means TikTok), and that age verification had long been an issue given that children often don't have passports or other documents until they're a bit older.
"We have to do a lot here,” Mosseri told BuzzFeed, "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 attorneys general point to multiple issues in the can of worms that comes with inviting young children onto social media in general.
"As recently articulated by dozens of organizations and experts, 'Instagram... 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[,]' and '[t]he platform’s relentless focus on appearance, self-presentation, and branding presents challenges to adolescents’ privacy and wellbeing,'" the attorneys write, referring to this other open letter to Facebook from the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, sent last month.
Further, the attorneys argue that kids aren't equipped to make decisions around their own privacy or what they look at online, and simply allowing for parental controls doesn't solve that.
"Children do not have a developed understanding of privacy," they write. "Specifically, they may not fully appreciate what content is appropriate for them to share with others, the permanency of content they post on an online platform, and who has access to what they share online. They are also simply too young to navigate the complexities of what they encounter online, including inappropriate content..."
Instagram's rate of user growth has been documented to be slowing, and eMarketer estimated that it would decrease steadily over the next three years from 4.5% among U.S. users in 2020, to 1.8% by 2023. Obviously, a cynical way to address this is to attract a whole new base among kids — some of whom are already using the app in violation of app rules.
Mosseri himself maintains private Instagram accounts for his children, in order to share family photos with friends, he says. But as BuzzFeed points out, when he posts images of them to his own public account, he covers their faces with emoji.
As one follower asked him when he did this on Halloween, "What do you know that [your kids] don’t about how these images are used?"