For the second time in a month, Facebook has been found creeping past the boundary of what’s reasonably healthy for kids. The company has been planning versions of its product adapted for “tweens” ages 10 through 12 for the last three years, including an edition of Instagram for Kids and Facebook Messenger features that “leverages” children’s playdates, according to a new feature by the Wall Street Journal.
The idea of an “Instagram for Kids” has floated around for quite some time; its proposed features including hefty parental controls, age-appropriate content, and a lack of advertising. And in a time of generalised social strife, nothing has seemingly united human beings more than a distaste for the product: parents, mental health experts, child welfare advocates, law enforcement, and lawmakers have all opposed the idea on various grounds including impacted cognitive development and child safety. The only party that remains interested in the product is, well, Facebook.
“Why do we care about tweens? They are a valuable but untapped audience,” the WSJ quotes from an internal Facebook document. “Valuable” is the insidious keyword — it reveals Facebook’s already-somewhat-obvious true intentions, which is to turn a profit even at the expense of its own audience’s well-being. The company has reportedly researched how it can turn playdates into opportunities for youngsters to use the app, both while coordinating said playdates and while already spending time with one another in person. (Facebook’s internal documents don’t seem to elaborate on how this latter part would work.)
Facebook isn’t the first online platform to face fallout after targeting literal children. In 2019, the ever-popular short video app TikTok was found guilty of violating federal children’s privacy laws, resulting in a $5.7 million fine by the Federal Trade Commission. The company introduced unique privacy settings and defaults for minors earlier this year, though the app still seems to direct sexual and drug-related content to users under 18. But Facebook has dabbled in this space before, in particular with its launch of Messenger Kids in 2017. But as TikTok and Snapchat lure in younger mobile device users, Facebook feels left in the dust, and as a result it’s desperate to grab kids’ attention before it’s too late.
“Kids are getting on the internet as young as six years old. We can’t ignore this . . . Imagine a Facebook experience designed for youth,” Facebook stated in a document from 2018, clearly having forgotten to ask themselves whether such an “experience” was at all appropriate for the audience in question. The early adoption of social media by teenagers has repeatedly been found to be risky, as confirmed by Facebook through its conversations with kids about its plotted features. One tween told the company they didn’t know how to get a “perfect picture” like “you need to post.”
Following immense backlash from all corners of the Internet, Facebook has decided to step back from its plans to release kid-focused features and products — for now. “We’re pausing ‘Instagram Kids’,” Instagram head Adam Mosseri announced via Twitter earlier this week. “This was a tough decision. I still think building this experience is the right thing to do, but we want to take more time to speak with parents and experts working out how to get this right.”
The original version of this article was originally published in Extreme Tech.
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