Surprise, surprise: The man best known for inventing a hotspot for political misinformation, privacy violations, and countless data leaks had a terrible idea. On Monday, May 10, 44 attorneys general penned a letter to Mark Zuckerberg, urging Facebook to halt its plans for a new business venture: “Instagram for kids.” The letter brings up the many, many psychological and safety-related reasons it would be harmful to launch a version of the app for children under the age of 13. Zuckerberg, however, seems adamant about doing it anyway.
“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,” wrote the National Association of Attorneys General. “The attorneys general have an interest in protecting our youngest citizens, and Facebook’s plans to create a platform where kids under the age of 13 are encouraged to share content online is contrary to that interest.”
Many of us were unaware of Instagram for kids (thankfully), which was actually announced around two months ago. Zuckerberg confirmed the plan during a March 25 congressional hearing, and the same month, a Facebook spokesperson told USA Today that the app was “in its very early stages” and would hopefully “help kids keep up with their friends, discover new hobbies and interests, and more.” The spokesperson likened it to Messenger Kids, a similar Facebook-esque app designed for children. It’s worth noting that Messenger Kids was also extremely controversial when it started, and only became more concerning after a bug allowed thousands of children to enter group chats with unknown adults of all ages. (Facebook has said that the glitch was resolved.)
During the congressional hearing, Zuckerberg said that an Instagram for children could help kids “stay connected” and “learn about different content online.” Instagram spokesperson Stephanie Otway cited the growing number of children attempting to use Instagram by lying about their ages; a new app designed for kids is a “practical solution,” the company argued.
But along with the obvious safety concerns, AGs, other political leaders, and mental health professionals all worry this venture could negatively impact children’s development and self-esteem. In April, a coalition led by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood slammed Instagram’s “relentless focus on appearance, self-presentation, and branding,” and wrote in a letter to Zuckerberg that children under 13 are less equipped than adults to handle the pressures, challenges, and anxiety related to the app. Those who would lie about their age, the signatories argued, would likely still choose to join “adult” Instagram over “a new site that seems babyish.”
Sens. Ed Markey and Richard Blumenthal and Reps. Lori Trahan and Kathy Castor also wrote a letter to Zuckerberg in April, requesting that he outline a detailed plan to protect user safety and prevent the proliferation of sponsored content, edited and filtered photos, and more. “Should Facebook fail to provide adequate responses to the questions above or otherwise fail to demonstrate that a future version of Instagram for children would meet the highest standards of user protection, we would advise you to abandon your plans to launch this new platform,” wrote the lawmakers.
Experts agree that social media — in particular, Instagram — can have adverse effects on children and teenagers’ mental health, body image, self-esteem, and sleep schedule. Instagram breeds an obsession with “likes,” popularity, and missing out on events that a user may or may not have been invited to. According to McLean Hospital, the app is designed to be addictive, because tools like “Likes” and push notifications can make the brain release dopamine. Researchers have found that young people who spend more time on apps are more likely to have depression and anxiety. A 2017 study from the U.K.’s Royal Society for Public Health showed that, compared to Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, and YouTube, Instagram has the largest mental health impact.
“There's a good amount of research suggesting that Instagram is among the most toxic social media platforms because of its emphasis on image and followers,” said psychologist Jean Twenge, according to NBC News. “My view is that there's really no way to make it completely safe for young kids.”