Sep 28, 2021 - Technology

Behind the Instagram Kids pause

Illustration of a child's handwriting spelling Facebook

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Facebook's announcement Monday that it was "pausing development" on Instagram Kids did little to slow a wave of criticism of the project ahead of a Senate hearing Thursday.

Yes, but: There's an argument to be made for building kids' versions of popular apps, even if their adult versions are causing real-world harms.

Though not without the occasional glitches, Google's YouTube Kids and Facebook's Messenger Kids have largely fulfilled their promise of providing safer alternatives to their less curated grownup counterparts.

  • The risk, of course, is that even if the kids' versions are safe, they will serve as on-ramps to the larger platforms, which themselves can be dangerous.

Be smart: The kids apps may do a solid job of protecting privacy, but their limits also make them unpopular with their target audience — so much so that kids would rather sneak onto Messenger or the full YouTube than use the youth versions.

  • For this reason, companies like TikTok have built specific experiences within its main app for users under 13 that limit certain activities, like video posting or private messaging.

Still, those efforts are also flawed, given how easy it can be for users to circumvent age verifications.

  • For example, the New York Times reported last year that close to one-third of TikTok's daily active users in the U.S. were under 14.

The big picture: Facebook's move to pause work on Instagram Kids follows a slew of negative revelations in a Wall Street Journal series, including internal research showing that Instagram is having a negative impact on girls' self-image. (Facebook on Sunday pushed back on the way the research has been characterized.)

  • Large companies, including Facebook, are being criticized for their work on apps that target kids at the same time that they're being pushed by legislation in the U.K. and elsewhere to create either separate apps or different experiences within their app for younger people.
  • This past summer, several tech companies introduced new policies to protect kids' data in light of a pending law in the U.K. promoting the privacy and wellbeing of young people online.

What to watch: The COVID-19 pandemic saw kids spending more time online, and left overwhelmed parents feeling largely helpless in their ability to regulate screen time, even after lockdowns subsided. That's another reason efforts to introduce new digital apps for kids — even when they might be better alternatives to existing products — encounter skepticism.

What they're saying:

  • Head of Instagram Adam Mosseri, in a post: "We firmly believe that it's better for parents to 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."
  • Common Sense CEO Jim Steyer, in a statement: "Make no mistake that they are still going to try to build it. ... The only thing they care about is hooking kids when they are most vulnerable, keeping them on the platform and getting access to as much of their personal data as possible."
  • Sens. Edward Markey and Richard Blumenthal, Reps. Lori Trahan and Kathy Castor: "Facebook has completely forfeited the benefit of the doubt when it comes to protecting young people online and it must completely abandon this project," the Democratic legislators said in a statement.
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