Instagram For Kids
Earlier in March this year, BuzzFeed News reported that executives at Instagram are looking to build a version of the app that can be used by children under the age of 13. At present, Instagram doesn’t allow children under the age of 13 to use the service.
Vishal Shah, Instagram’s vice president of product said, as mentioned by BuzzFeed News, “We will be building a new youth pillar within the Community Product Group to 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.”
Putting A Pause
A couple of days back, Instagram put a hold on the new app it is creating for kids and said that it would continue building on its parental supervision tools. This move came amid U.S. lawmakers and advocacy groups urging Facebook to drop its launch plans, quoting safety concerns.
Josh Golin, executive director of Fairplay, an advocacy group focused on kids said, as mentioned by Reuters, “We won’t stop pressuring Facebook until they permanently pull the plug.” Lawmakers, who also include U.S. Representatives Kathy Castor and Lori Trahan, said, as quoted by Reuters, “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 WSJ Report
The concerns about Instagram being bad for kids and teenagers grew after The Wall Street Journal published a report. The series of articles published by WSJ were based on a trove of internal research and communications leaked by a company whistle-blower. Here are some of the shocking facts found in the leaked documents.
A March 2020-slide presentation posted to Facebook’s internal message board, reviewed by WSJ, showed that the researchers had said, “Thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse.” One slide from 2019, summarizing research about teen girls who experience the issues, said, “We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls.”
March 2020 internal research said that the tendency to share only the best moments, a pressure to look perfect, and an addictive product can send teens spiralling toward eating disorders, an unhealthy sense of their own bodies and depression. The internal research warned that the Explore page, which serves users photos and videos curated by an algorithm, can send users deep into content that can be harmful.
In the internal documents, the researchers wrote in January, “Sharing or viewing filtered selfies in stories made people feel worse.” Facebook’s researchers found that over-sexualization of girls as something that weighs on the mental health of the app’s users. In a report on body image in 2020, Facebook’s researchers found that 40% of teen boys experience negative social comparison.
Another slide said, “Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression.” The slide also showed that, “This reaction was unprompted and consistent across all groups.” One presentation showed that, among teens who reported suicidal thoughts, 13% of British users and 6% of American users traced the desire to kill themselves to Instagram.
According to the documents, an Instagram research manager explained to colleagues, “Teens told us that they don’t like the amount of time they spend on the app but feel like they have to be present.” The manager also said, “They often feel ‘addicted’ and know that what they’re seeing is bad for their mental health but feel unable to stop themselves.”
The documents also showed that Facebook made minimal efforts to address these issues and plays them down in public. According to the documents, the research has been analysed by top Facebook executives, and was quoted in a 2020 presentation given to Mark Zuckerberg. Facebook’s research shows that the company knew how Instagram was negatively impacting teens but didn’t disclose any of these data to the public and also failed to take any efforts to make the app better.
Yesterday, the Senate consumer protection subcommittee hearing criticised Facebook on the firm’s plans to protect children who use its social media platforms. However, Mark Zuckerberg and other executives at Facebook and Instagram say that WSJ cherry-picked the data from the documents. While Facebook’s Head of Global Security, Antigone Davis, said that the company takes the issue very seriously, Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal was unconvinced. Blumenthal said, as mentioned by Al Jazeera, “It is powerful, gripping, riveting evidence that Facebook knows of the harmful effects of its site on children, and that it has concealed those facts and findings.”
Instagram head Adam Mosseri also said that he doesn’t agree with how the Journal has reported on their research. However, Danny Weiss, chief Advocacy officer at Common Sense Media, a non-profit group that focuses on improving technology’s impact on children, told Al Jazeera, “The findings the WSJ came out with through a whistle-blower are very damning of Facebook and the way that it operates, and the attitude that Facebook has towards children and teens — a special group of people who need extra special protections.”
In The End
Despite all these research, Facebook doesn’t seem to think that the issue is that bad. When several studies were talking about the negative impacts of social media on the mental health of people, Facebook executives often point to studies from the Oxford Internet Institute. This study showed that there was little correlation between social-media use and depression. However, when WSJ spoke to psychiatrists and teenagers, they said that Instagram pushes young people towards getting eating disorders, and badly affects their self-image.
Angela Garuda, director for the eating-disorders program at Johns Hopkins Hospital and an associate professor of psychiatry in the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, said WSJ, that she estimates that Instagram and other social-media apps play a role in the disorders of about half her patients. Lindsay Dubin, a 19-year-old teen told WSJ, since then the app’s algorithm has filled her Explore page with photos of how to lose weight, the “ideal” body type and what she should and shouldn’t be eating. Dubin added, “I’m pounded with it every time I go on Instagram.”
Instagram also leads to a culture where young people compare their lives, bodies, work, holidays with others, and this makes them feel like their life aren’t as good as what others are having. The app is also very ‘addicting’ for teens, pushing them to become obsessed with it. It is also difficult for teenagers to leave the app, since they use it to stay connected with their friends, especially during hard times like the pandemic.
This makes us ask a couple of questions: Why should teenagers develop self-control while using social media platforms? Why should the responsibility of understanding the impact of good and bad content in Instagram’s Explore page falls on the shoulders of teens? Since Instagram is a huge platform, with billions of users, it has become too big to control or ignore.
The grilling done by senators, the penalties imposed on Facebook, the new guidelines that are supposed to make social media platforms better are not doing much help. So, clear action has to be taken by governments against these platforms, which are causing harm to the mental health of the younger generation. People might not be able to stop using them overnight, but governments can ensure that social media giants can modify their algorithms in a way that it helps everyone, and not give them anxiety and depression. If we don’t act now, it might become too late to stop them. And sometimes, we believe, it might already be too late…