Why All Social Networks Should Make Kids’ Accounts Private By Default

It’s harder than it seems

Key Takeaways

  • Instagram will make all minors’ accounts private by default.
  • Advertising to kids will be restricted. 
  • Protecting kids online is much easier than finding those kids in the first place.
Someone filming a group of teenage dancers for social media using a smartphone.

Maskot / Getty Images

Instagram is making kids’ accounts safer. So why don’t all social media networks do the same?

Instagram’s new rules make the accounts of kids under 18 private by default and restrict advertising to those accounts. Advertisers will only be able to target kids based on age, gender, and location, and if adult Instagram users exhibit "potentially suspicious" behavior, they will be blocked from interacting with teen accounts.

This seems like the kind of basic protection for children that should be part of all social networks. But as with everything on the internet, it’s never quite that simple. 

"It's encouraging to see Facebook implement changes to help protect the privacy of users who are under the age of 16. It's a step that all social networks should take," Vlad Davidiuk, public policy, and government political analyst, told Lifewire via email.

"Unfortunately, just like adults, children too are tracked on social media for purposes of selling their data. State and federal governments have begun taking increasingly stringent steps to protect children’s privacy, but it's still up to parents to enforce the legal privacy rights of children."

Valuable and Vulnerable

Kids are valuable to social networks. They might not have the purchasing power of adults, but as the old saying goes, "you want to get ‘em while they’re young." Also, young people tend to be all-in on social media the way adults may not be; they are the drivers of memes. 

Two groups of teenagers socializing in a school hallway, some using smartphones.

PhotoAlto/Frederic Cirou / Getty Images

"Since many social media platforms have transformed into marketing tools, social networks have primarily targeted younger age groups," private investigator Whitney Joy Smith told Lifewire via email. "As a result, platforms like TikTok have drawn in the younger generation, and many of them strive to use that platform to become 'TikTok famous' to gain a following and create content, which has spiked TikTok's business model."

Kids are vulnerable not only to the platforms’ marketing tactics and drive for engagement, but also to other users. Cyberbullying is one example, as is predatory or weird attention from adults. 

"Teenagers are the biggest users of social networking sites," Kaitlyn Rayment, CEO of gaming computer maker WePC, told Lifewire via email. "Cyberbullying has been on the rise, and teenagers have been targeted all along."

If Instagram or any other social network knows the ages of its users, then it can more easily segregate younger, more vulnerable users and protect them. The problem is trying to determine the age of minors. If underage kids can get into bars and buy drinks, then typing "18" into the age box at signup isn’t going to be a problem.

Instagram screenshot that show how to make an account private.


Hard to Regulate

"As we know, many of the largest social media platforms pride themselves on having an extremely large user base," Carla Diaz, co-founder of internet provider research tool BroadBand Search, told Lifewire via email.

"Unfortunately, this means that creating an account with them is as simple as entering an email and your first and last name. While they do state that they have age restrictions, they really don’t enforce these or have any method of verifying the age besides using an 'honor system'-like checkbox."

So, how can social networks determine the age of a user? One way is to force them to show ID, either via a video call or upload. But not all countries have official IDs, and in those that do, kids more than likely won’t have one yet. As for adults, which of us would feel comfortable giving yet another piece of important personal information to Facebook?

In an interview with NBC News, Instagram's head of public policy, Karina Newton, ruled out collecting IDs for these very reasons. Instead, the company has developed automated tools to determine the age of a user. 

A teen, lounging on the couch, using a smartphone.

MoMo Productions / Getty Images

In a separate blog post, Facebook’s vice president of youth products, Pavni Diwanji, details how Facebook enforces its minimum age requirement (13, in the US) at sign up. 

Facebook’s method uses—you guessed it—AI. The system is trained to spot things like people wishing you a happy 15th birthday or happy quinceañera. It also compares your age claims across different Facebook-owned apps to check the truth of your claims. And, being Facebook, you can make a good bet that there are all kinds of extra data going into this model.

Protecting minors is the easy part. The hard part is finding them. Fortunately, the big social media networks already have the kind of advanced surveillance tech that’s ideal for rooting them out. This is also the kind of area that should be mandated by law, but that would require that lawmakers essentially instruct Facebook to turn its algorithms on kids. And that might not play well in lots of places around the world.

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