“While we stand by the need to develop this experience, we’ve decided to pause this project,” Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, wrote in a Monday blog post. “This will give us time to work with parents, experts, policymakers and regulators, to listen to their concerns, and to demonstrate the value and importance of this project for younger teens online today.”
The decision was seen as a rare retreat for the tech giant, which had presented Instagram Kids as an ad-free version of the app, replete with certain “age-appropriate content and features” for children younger than 13. It would have a suite of tools allowing parents to control how much time their kids can spend on the app, who can message them, who can follow them, and whom they can follow.
But critics contend that marketing a social media app specifically for children would encourage them to spend even more time glued to their smartphones, potentially exposing them to harmful material.
The broadsides against Instagram Kids have come from all corners. Parents and child welfare advocates say the app could weigh on kids’ mental health at a critical moment in their cognitive development. Lawmakers have used the episode to call for new regulations on social media companies. Law enforcement officials have said Instagram is already used by pedophiles to meet children online, and the National Center on Sexual Exploitation said Instagram for kids “was an irresponsible idea from its inception.”
All of it adds up to a crisis of confidence for Facebook at a time when it is competing with rivals like TikTok and Snapchat for the attention of a new generation.
“This illustrates that for Facebook, monetizing young people and the next generation of its users is always its highest priority,” said Jeff Chester, executive director of the advocacy group Center for Digital Democracy.
Those concerns mounted after the Journal disclosed the results of an internal study Facebook conducted to determine how its apps affect users. About a third of teenage girls surveyed by Facebook’s researchers said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse.
Responding to the Journal investigation, a Facebook representative disputed the assertion that Instagram is “toxic” for teen girls. The company’s research “actually demonstrated that many teens we heard from feel that using Instagram helps them when they are struggling with the kinds of hard moments and issues teenagers have always faced,” Facebook head of research Pratiti Raychoudhury said in a blog post Sunday.
In 11 out of 12 subjects that Facebook examined — including issues such as loneliness, anxiety, sadness and eating problems — more struggling teenage girls said Instagram actually helped them, Raychoudhury said.
Antigone Davis, Facebook’s Global Head of Safety, is scheduled to address the issue Thursday before the Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety and Data Security.
In early April, four Democratic lawmakers ― Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fl.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Lori Trahan (D-Mass.) ― wrote a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg urging him to abandon the offering. They said Facebook should find ways to get children and preteens to stop using any of its apps, as opposed to simply building a new product for them.
In a joint statement Monday, the four lawmakers said the project should be killed, not just paused, and that they would push new legislation to regulate children’s use of social media apps. “Facebook has completely forfeited the benefit of the doubt when it comes to protecting young people online and it must completely abandon this project,” they said.
Law enforcement authorities have also has expressed concern. In a May 10 letter addressed to Zuckerberg, 44 state attorneys general urged Facebook to drop plans for Instagram Kids, arguing such a platform could leave young children susceptible to bullying or even sexual abuse.
The attorneys general referenced a report from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, a British charity, which found that Instagram had been used to communicate sexually with children in about a third of the 1,944 police-reported indents the group had surveyed, making it more common than any other app. Facebook’s app was used in 23 percent of those cases, and Snapchat 14 percent.
“Facebook has historically failed to protect the welfare of children on its platforms,” the attorneys general wrote.
Child health care advocates say the apps encourage a “fear of missing out” that leads children to constantly check their devices and buy into a superficial, self-presentation-focused mind-set.
“The only thing they care about is hooking kids when they are most vulnerable, keeping them on the platform and getting access to as much of their personal data as possible,” said Jim Steyer, founder and chief executive of the advocacy group Common Sense Media.
Facebook’s Mosseri said Instagram Kids, despite its name, was meant primarily for tweens aged 10-12.
“The reality is that kids are already online, and we believe that developing age-appropriate experiences designed specifically for them is far better for parents than where we are today,” Mosseri wrote,
The advocacy group Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood advocacy group disputes Facebook’s assertion that a kid-oriented Instagram app would draw kids off the adult version, because tweens and older children would probably keep using the adult version of the app. The “true audience” for Instagram Kids would actually be much younger children who don’t currently have accounts.
“While collecting valuable family data and cultivating a new generation of Instagram users may be good for Facebook’s bottom line, it will likely increase the use of Instagram by young children who are particularly vulnerable to the platform’s manipulative and exploitative features,” reads the CCFC’s April letter.
Chester, the Center for Digital Democracy director, said Facebook’s “pause” is unlikely to signal a significant change in the company’s ongoing plan to recruit and monetize a new generation of users.
“Pulling back temporarily after it receives pressure from regulators has been how Facebook has handled all its crises from the very beginning,” Chester said. “They do a digital Mea Culpa and then — one way or another — proceed with their plan.”