Earlier this year, BuzzFeed broke the news that executives at Instagram / Facebook are planning to build a version of the app that can be used by, and is targeting, children under the age of 13.
According to an internal post obtained by journalists, Vishal Shah, Instagram’s vice president of product, wrote that Instagram has “ identified youth work as a priority for Instagram.” He adds that “We will 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.” Until now, Instagram policy forbids children under the age of 13 from using the service.
Protecting youth or expanding user base?
Interestingly, this internal announcement came just days after Instagram said it needs to protect its youngest users. Public outcry for the abuse and bullying that teens faced on the app was getting heated, and the company published a blog post in March titled “Continuing to Make Instagram Safer for the Youngest Members of Our Community.”
Yet despite these promises, the announcement of Instagram for kids clearly has more to do with expanding the company’s user base than keeping young people safe online. While various laws limit how companies can build products for and target children, Instagram sees kids under 13 as a viable growth segment, particularly because of the app’s popularity among teens. They are also keen to go to battle against a rising star in the social media market — TikTok.
Where does marketing stop? A matter of ethics.
Of course, from a purely advertising-driven perspective, the move makes sense. More eyeballs are more eyeballs, plain and simple. However, from a human perspective, things are not so clear. I believe most adults would agree that we have an obligation to protect youth and allow them to enjoy childhood without having to navigate the same messy online culture that a still-developing brain is less equipped to filter and make sense of. Think of already alarming rates of online abuse, bullying, and shaming. The current online world allows for a lot without much oversight or intervention. So it is not surprising that the backlash to this announcement has been fierce, with many calling for Facebook to abandon the initiative (including a combined collective of Senators/States or boycotting all Facebook services altogether).
Whether these appeals will be heard by either Facebook or the judicial systems in the world, though, remains to be seen. Either way, if the tool were to come into existence, using it as an advertising platform is not ethical, and we have an obligation to take an active stance against it. Period. Advertising and optimization for any business’ revenue are great, but they don’t belong in a space designed for children.
We’re in a new privacy environment
Funnily enough, if that is your type of humor, this move seems to be running counter to recent trends buffing up online privacy. There is currently a case in the Netherlands where over 62K parents are suing TikTok for neglecting kids’ privacy rights, and the recent move by Apple with iOS 14.5 to bolster the privacy of all users, regardless of age. An understanding of how our data is processed and used is becoming more widespread, as even adults don’t really know how we are being tracked or what we can do against it. Do you also believe your phones are always listening to you, and advertising items to you that you did not search for but only talked about? And as people start to sense the insidious nature of constant targeting—they are eager for ways to opt-out.
There is a way to do Instagram for kids, but it won’t be easy
I believe it is essential that we continue finding ways to reach audiences in an authentic way that is both respectful and honest. This doesn’t work with kids. If Instagram does decide to release a new product for younger uses, it needs to put privacy and protection first. All content needs to be curated and written differently, focusing only on topics appropriate and interesting for developing minds. It is possible to do this right. The biggest newscast in the Netherlands, NOS, has already since 1981 a separated social media account for kids and YouTube TV shows where they talk about “their” news and in “kids language”, focusing on what teens and kids find interesting and relevant like exams or parties, instead of politics or casualties. 2 years ago, another announced two separate channels for teens and students. Of course, this only works when you can control the output and you listen to and care for the opinions of your (younger) audiences.
Adapting the Instagram method, where there is no such control and supervision, could prove a lot more problematic for children. The whole algorithm exists to draw users in and send them down unexpected rabbit holes. It is not difficult to imagine the many ways this could go wrong when you’re dealing with all the curiosity, susceptibility, and desire to “fit in” that accompanies childhood.
What do you think about this initiative? Would you want it, if you were a teenager? Would you want it, as a parent? Would you want it as a business?