Facebook shelving Instagram for kids, expanding parental oversight for teens

The company has faced backlash for hiding internal research showing the platform's negative impact on teen body image issues.
Written by Jonathan Greig, Contributor

Facebook has decided to put a pause on its "Instagram Kids" project but said it would be expanding parental oversight for accounts owned by those over the age of 13. 

The pause comes after weeks of widespread outrage stemming from a Wall Street Journal report about internal studies done by Facebook researchers showing Instagram's damaging effects on teens' mental health. 

In a blog post on Monday, head of Instagram Adam Mosseri defended the effort to create a version of the platform for kids. Still, it said more time needed to be taken 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." 

"We started this project to address an important problem seen across our industry: kids are getting phones younger and younger, misrepresenting their age, and downloading apps that are meant for those 13 or older. We firmly believe that parents should have the option to give their children access to a version of Instagram that is designed for them -- where parents can supervise and control their experience -- than relying on an app's ability to verify the age of kids who are too young to have an ID," Mosseri said.

"Critics of 'Instagram Kids' will see this as an acknowledgement that the project is a bad idea. That's not the case. 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 added that both YouTube and TikTok have versions of their apps for children under 13, validating Instagram's desire for a kids platform. 

He noted that the company will explain how the new parental controls being expanded for teen accounts (13+) will work in "the coming months."

Facebook and Instagram officials have disputed the concerns raised in the series of stories published by the Wall Street Journal. The stories were based on internal Facebook documents and one particular PowerPoint presentation showing a study of how teens in the US and UK view their experience on Instagram. 

"Repeatedly, the company's researchers found that Instagram is harmful for a sizable percentage of them [young users], most notably teenage girls. 'We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls,' said one slide from 2019, summarizing research about teen girls who experience the issues," Wall Street Journal reporters wrote. 

On Sunday, Facebook head of research Pratiti Raychoudhury released a blog post disputing how the newspaper characterized the study and its findings but left many even more confused. 

Raychoudhury argues in one instance that the sample size of the study was too small to make its findings significant yet in other parts of the blog says the study proves that Instagram has a positive effect on teens "on 11 of 12 well-being issues." Despite referencing the study and the PowerPoint presentation, Facebook has not released it publicly.

A Facebook spokesperson wrote on Twitter that the company had not released the study because they are sharing it with Congress in advance of a hearing this week about the issues faced by teens on the platform.

"We're evaluating how we can release it to the public at some point," said Facebook's Andy Stone, raising event more questions about why the report was being shielded from the public in this way. 

There have been dozens of studies over the years showing the damaging effects of social media sites like Facebook and Instagram on teens and their perceptions of themselves. But the Wall Street Journal report was one of the few times that it was revealed the company itself knew the issues with their platform. 

Mosseri said that part of the reason why they wanted to create Instagram Kids is that the current app was never meant for teens in the first place. 

Instagram Kids, he explained, "was never meant for younger kids, but for tweens (aged 10-12)." 

"It will require parental permission to join, it won't have ads, and it will have age-appropriate content and features. Parents can supervise the time their children spend on the app and oversee who can message them, who can follow them and who they can follow. The list goes on," Mosseri said.

But he admitted that the controversy caused by the Wall Street Journal story had made it difficult to move forward with the project. 

"The project leaked way before we knew what it would be. People feared the worst, and we had few answers at that stage. Recent WSJ reporting caused even greater concern. It's clear we need to take more time on this," Mosseri said on Twitter.

In his blog post, he said he does not "agree with how the Journal has reported on our research" but noted that it "has raised a lot of questions for people."

Mosseri said their research findings "often shed light on problems" but noted that they had created a number of features to address certain issues. 

Despite the Instagram blog explaining their decision, even members of Congress were not persuaded by the pause of the project. 

"Pausing Instagram kids is not enough," said Rep. Ken Buck. "They need to abolish the program completely. Facebook knows it is toxic for our kids; they simply don't care."

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