Why Experts Clash Over Instagram for Kids

It may not be secure enough

Key Takeaways

  • Facebook is reportedly working on a version of Instagram that would be explicitly aimed at children. 
  • Instagram’s current policy forbids children under the age of 13 from using the service. 
  • A coalition of public health and child safety advocates recently asked Facebook to cancel the project.
Children using smartphones, standing in a row against a white background.

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Facebook is planning to launch a version of Instagram for children, but experts disagree over whether it could put young users at risk. 

The current Instagram policy forbids children under the age of 13 from using the service. The company reportedly is working on a version of the social media service that would be ad-free and feature parental controls. While details haven’t been announced, some observers are skeptical. 

"An app solely for kids with no credible way to assure that the profiles on there are actually underage can be very toxic and unhealthy, as many children can be exploited and manipulated into doing things that are not meant for them," Brandon Walsh, who runs the parenting blog DadsAgree, said in an email interview. 

"These years are for kids to develop a sense of self, and we have seen how demeaning social media can be at times, thus endangering personal growth and distancing them from an actual social life," he added.

Group Calls for Facebook to Cancel Project

An international coalition of public health and child safety advocates recently asked Facebook executives to cancel the Instagram-for-kids project. Despite Facebook’s assurances that it would limit the software to kids under 13, the coalition said many children have lied about their ages to create Instagram accounts.

"Having a safe and secure environment designed specifically for kids will surely prepare them for what lies ahead, and hopefully make them more able to avoid the pitfalls and dangers."

"A growing body of research demonstrates that excessive use of digital devices and social media is harmful to adolescents," Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, a Boston-based nonprofit, wrote in a letter to Facebook.

"Instagram, in particular, exploits young people’s fear of missing out and desire for peer approval to encourage children and teens to constantly check their devices and share photos with their followers. The platform’s relentless focus on appearance, self-presentation, and branding presents challenges to adolescents’ privacy and wellbeing."

But Christopher J. Ferguson, a professor of Psychology at Stetson University, expressed skepticism about the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.

In an email interview, he called the organization "an anti-media and technology advocacy group that has an 'axe to grind' on this issue." He added, "Indeed, I'd suggest that their own financial health depends on soliciting donations by frightening people as much as possible about media and technology." 

Despite the claims by the scholars in the Campaign’s letter, there isn't solid evidence to connect social-media use to adverse outcomes like depression or suicide, Ferguson said. 

Four children using smartphones outdoors.

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"Ultimately, social media is here to stay, and people need to learn how to use it," Ferguson said. "It can be helpful to have kids-only spaces where kids are hopefully free from adults and can learn how to manage social media with their parents' help."

Harvesting Kids Data

The new Instagram program also raises privacy concerns. Instagram for kids would provide Facebook with the ability to harvest user data from children to evaluate and track them, Ray Walsh, a data privacy expert at the website ProPrivacy said in an email interview. 

"With Instagram for kids, Facebook would be acquiring huge amounts of information about children, their likes, and their habits, which it could instantly begin leveraging once those children become 13," Walsh added. 

Under the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), companies like Facebook must refrain from leveraging any data they obtain about kids for marketing purposes. 

However, said Walsh, "It is easy to see how this gives Facebook a huge head start in terms of data capture from those children, a decision that is almost certainly inspired by a will to profit from that profiling data at a later date, or in ways that are not restricted by COPPA."

"An app solely for kids with no credible way to assure that the profiles on there are actually underage can be very toxic and unhealthy..."

Not everyone agrees that Instagram for kids is a bad thing. Former software developer and current stay-at-home father Dave Pedley said that the app could help teach kids how to navigate the internet. 

"We as parents will not be able to shield our kids from the risks that exist in social media—and indeed the open internet—forever," he said in an email interview.

"Having a safe and secure environment designed specifically for kids will surely prepare them for what lies ahead, and hopefully make them more able to avoid the pitfalls and dangers."

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