Why Facebook is retaining Instagram for kids

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Politics

Facebook has suspended development of Instagram Kids amid questions about the app’s effect on youth mental health. Photo by Jasmine Clarke / The New York Times

Bowing – perhaps only for a moment – to pressure from lawmakers, critics, the media and child development experts, Facebook announced on Monday that it would “halt” its work on a children’s version of its photo and video-oriented Instagram application.

But what’s not yet clear is how seriously Facebook takes the concerns of experts and parents. His decision to simply put the project on hold suggests he still plans to expose a much younger audience to Instagram, its well-documented misdeeds, and perhaps the user profiling that fuels Facebook’s targeted ad machine. This advertising machine, of course, has made the company one of the most profitable on the planet.

  • Massachusetts lawmakers say Facebook’s ‘break’ from Instagram for kids is ‘insufficient’

Why is Facebook doing this now?

The company’s move follows an explosive mid-September report from the Wall Street Journal which found that Facebook knew from its own research that Instagram was harming certain teens, especially girls, resulting in mental health and body image problems and, in some cases, eating disorders and suicidal thoughts. .

In public, however, Facebook has always played down the negative side of the app and so far has moved forward with the children’s version despite alarms from experts, lawmakers and its own research. He also relentlessly criticized the Journal article as a selection of Facebook searches, although he did not dispute the facts. This story, however, was based on internal research leaked by a company whistleblower.

It is probably no coincidence that on Thursday a Senate Commerce Committee panel will hold a hearing examining the “toxic effects” of Facebook and Instagram on young people. This is the latest in several hearings to see if big tech companies are hiding what they know about the damage their products do.

So, is Instagram for kids canceled?

Facebook specifically did not say it would abandon the project. Instead, Instagram chief Adam Mosseri said in a blog post on Monday that the company would use its break time “to work with parents, experts and policy makers to demonstrate the value and the need for this product “.

Translation: Expect Facebook to sharpen its post on Instagram’s “benefits” for kids in hopes the fury dies down.

Consider that Facebook previously said it was working with parents, experts, and policymakers in July when it introduced teen safety measures on its main Instagram platform. In fact, the company has “worked with” experts and other advisers for another product aimed at children: its Messenger Kids app launched in late 2017.

“Critics of Instagram Kids will see this as recognition that the project is a bad idea,” Mosseri wrote. “This is not the case.”

Who are the experts who work with Facebook?

Four years ago, Facebook said it brought together a group of experts in the fields of online safety, child development and children’s media to “share their expertise, research and advice.” The group he calls Youth Advisors includes well-known and lesser-known nonprofit groups including the Family Online Safety Institute, the Digital Wellness Lab, MediaSmarts, Project Rockit, and the Cyberbullying Research Center.

All of these groups receive some form of funding from Facebook, according to their websites. Meanwhile, some of the more well-known online children’s advocacy groups – and Facebook’s biggest critics on this issue – such as Common Sense Media and Fairplay (formerly known as Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood) are notably absent.

Critics acknowledge that many co-op experts have good intentions, but say their influence has been negligible. “Facebook has shown time and time again that it is incapable of governing or advising itself with integrity,” said Kyle Taylor, program director for the Real Facebook Oversight Board, a group critical of the social network. “Facebook’s funding of research and civil society is extremely problematic and prevents the kind of direct and open process required for real change to occur. “

When Facebook solicits comments on its plans, Taylor added, “the decks are always filled with experts who have a financial interest or who will never criticize Facebook’s core issues – their algorithm and their profit margin.”

Could Facebook still unplug the plug?

Fairplay executive director Josh Golin says Instagram for Kids may have already sunk in the waves. The “break,” he said, is a good way for Facebook to save face and hope that after a while people will forget about it.

He admits his group and other advocates haven’t pressured Facebook to cancel its children’s messaging product, but says Instagram for Kids is different.

“Instagram is a much worse platform for kids” than Messenger, he said, noting Facebook’s own internal research and a “wealth of evidence” to support the point. The climate has also changed since 2017 and 2018, as the “techlash” against the harmful effects of Big Tech on society was only just beginning to emerge. Now it’s in full swing and a lot more organized. Finally, there is the inertia of technological products.

“With Messenger Kids, the backlash only started when it was already out,” he said. “It is much easier for a company to revert to a product that does not yet exist than to withdraw a product from the market”

And the other platforms?

Facebook, of course, isn’t the only tech platform whose products have raised concerns about children’s well-being. And creating children’s versions to address these concerns is a popular response. After getting into trouble with US regulators for breaking children’s privacy rules, for example, TikTok created a “limited and separate app experience” for users under 13. They can’t share videos, comment on other people’s videos, or message people. But like any other app, if kids enter a wrong date of birth when signing up for the app, they can bypass this provision.

YouTube also has a children’s version. Earlier this year, lawmakers called it a “wasteland of tasteless consumerist content” and launched an investigation that is still ongoing.

AP Technology writer Tali Arbel contributed to this story.


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