The chorus against Instagram Kids grows louder

Just because you can make a product for a younger audience doesn’t mean you should,” one expert said to The Supercreator.

In a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg today, an international coalition of 35 children’s and consumer groups, led by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood in Boston, called on the tech executive to scrap the company’s plans to develop a version of Instagram for users under age 13. The nonprofit groups warned Zuckerberg that the Facebook-owned photo-sharing app is an insufficient alternative to the flagship app, which has received criticism for its lag in protecting users from sexual predators and bullying. The letter also argues that 10- to 12-year-olds with Instagram accounts would be unlikely to switch to a “babyish version” of the app and that Instagram Kids could hook younger users into habitual scrolling and image shame.

“I have a very hard time understanding what value — academic, experiential or otherwise — Instagram Kids might have to offer. It sounds dangerous,” Natalie Toren, Writing Partner at the On Deck Writer Fellowship and mother to a 5-year-old daughter, said to The Supercreator. “I think Instagram has been largely negative to my experience of the world — and harmful to my friends’ well-being. I can’t imagine wanting to share that with my kid.” (Disclosure: I’m an alum of ODW’s first cohort.) Shahara Jackson, who holds a doctorate in educational leadership from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, is also wary that IG Kids could reinforce a culture where youth are encouraged to post “rash judgments based on a split-second visual of an image” without engaging in thoughtful self-reflection or external dialogue.

A spokesperson from Common Sense, a global nonprofit helping families navigate media, tech and digital parenting that also signed on to the Zuckerberg letter, said in a statement to The Supercreator that while it’s unclear what specific features IG Kids will have since it doesn’t exist as a product yet, “Experience shows that regular Instagram is designed to keep users hooked, which can lead to compulsive usage and conflict between children [and] teens and caregivers about how much time they are spending on screens. It also has lots of influencers and commercialism that can be hard for young people to identify and understand.” Ariel Fox Johnson, senior counsel on global policy at Common Sense, acknowledged that social apps have different influences on different kids and called for more independent research into how they affect youth. “But looking at that, we see it can be detrimental for young people, and give them unrealistic expectations, particularly if they are prone to compare themselves to what they see on screen,” she said, referring to Common Sense’s most recent research that found teens who are already feeling depressed report social media use makes them feel even more anxious, stressed, and depressed.

Facebook’s plans for IG Kids were originally reported by Ryan Mac and Craig Silverman at BuzzFeed News, who obtained an internal Instagram post announcing the concept. The company declined to share any details on the project when The Supercreator asked for comment. “Increasingly, kids are asking their parents they can join apps that help them keep up with their friends,” a spokesperson said in a statement. “We’re exploring bringing a parent-controlled experience to Instagram to help kids keep up with their friends, discover new hobbies and interests, and more.”

As I reported last month, Facebook launched Messenger Kids in 2017. The company says it enables parents to control their kids’ contacts from a dashboard and message and video chat with kids via the Messenger app. Kids can add filters, reactions and sound effects to customize video chats and express themselves with stickers, GIFs and drawing tools. They can also block and report users; doing so notifies their parents. Facebook said IG Kids is an attempt to keep users under 13 off its main app and said it’s working on new age-verification methods to catch users who attempt to lie about their age. “The children this will appeal to will be much younger kids. So they are not swapping out an unsafe version of Instagram for a safer version,” Josh Golin, executive director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, said. “They are creating new demand for an audience that’s not ready for any type of Instagram product.” Messenger Kids doesn’t sell in-app purchases or ads. And while Facebook declined to comment when The Supercreator asked if IG Kids will serve personalized ads or show public follower and like counts on posts, it told Olivia Solon at NBC News that it would not show ads in any Instagram product developed for children under 13 and plans to consult with experts on children’s health and safety on the project.

This is unlikely to satisfy the coalition though, who wrote in their letter that “Instagram, in particular, 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 “the platform’s relentless focus on appearance, self-presentation, and branding presents challenges to adolescents’ privacy and wellbeing.” Jackson, who taught at every K–12 grade level and was the founding principal of a middle and high school in Brooklyn, calls this pressure “unwarranted and unnecessary.” She said if she were still in the classroom, she’d be vigilant about looking for signs of depression.

These risks aren’t exclusive to young people though, although the coalition’s point that younger children are less developmentally equipped to deal with them is true. I coined a term a few years ago called The Comparison Pit to describe the agonizing mental state where empowering feelings of gratitude, grace, joy and abundance give way to FOMO-induced anxiety, analysis paralysis and a debilitating trio of envy, jealousy and resentment. We fall into The Pit because our brains are drawing conclusions from people’s highlight reels — not the bloopers and blunders on they’ve intentionally left on the cutting room floor. Even worse: The deeper some sinks, the more highlight-reel novelty they crave.

Then there are the commercial considerations: “While collecting valuable family data and cultivating a new generation of Instagram users may be good for Facebook’s bottom line,” the coalition wrote. “It will likely increase the use of Instagram by young children who are particularly vulnerable to the platform’s manipulative and exploitative features.” Toren agrees, as feels deeply pessimistic that Facebook’s executives see and are acting on the market opportunity. “I cannot imagine that having snippets of media in a scroll — created for short attention spans — can offer meaningful habit-building for kids.”

The irony is that many of the tech executives behind these social apps are raising their kids tech-free or at least something close to it. “I think that’s really sensible. I wish more parents had that option to raise their kid with healthy influences like being diligently tech-free,” Toren said. “Parents are so significantly time-strapped and challenged, this past year especially, that they are particularly susceptible to the idea or promise of something their kids can interact with, learn from, and notably, occupy their time.”

Our last line of defense may be walking the halls of Capitol Hill. On April 5, Democratic Sens. Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Reps. Kathy Castor of Florida and Lori Trahan of Massachusetts wrote Zuckerberg a letter that voiced their displeasure. Common Sense’s Fox Johnson hopes they do more though. “Policymakers and the tech industry themselves have the power to help fix this — and they should act now,” she said. She recommends tech companies to build products that keep kids’ well-being top of mind and prohibiting features that promote harm and compulsive use. “Children should not become guinea pigs for tech companies. Just because you can make a product for a younger audience doesn’t mean you should.”