- Anna Yingst
Instagram Youth: The Expanding Market of Targeted Social Media Apps
Instagram, the photo-sharing giant with over 1.4 billion users, is reportedly building a social media platform for kids under the age of 13. First leaked by Buzzfeed News on March 18, 2021, the ‘Instagram Youth’ app would give parents the ability to monitor and control their kids' actions on the platform.
The announcement presents how Facebook, which acquired Instagram for $1 billion in 2012, intends to amplify its user base. The initial reactions from legislators, researchers, and non-profits were critical of Facebook's targeting of younger age groups, while some argued that kids will be on social media regardless, and thus require additional protection. While both sides present potential solutions to the debate over kids and smartphones, the history of Facebook's actions expose the adverse effects of monetizing social interactions online.
Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, now oversees Facebook, Instagram, Messenger, and WhatsApp, which boast over 1 billion users each. Taha Yasseri, a senior research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute, expresses concern for this media agglomeration by saying “one company owning four of the most popular social networking and communication apps, at best, can be described as a data monopoly.” Compared to other popular social media platforms, Instagram's photogenic core is heavily rooted in lifestyle content, routinely engaging users with algorithmically chosen content, filters, and targeted ads.
Instagram requires account holders to be at least 13 years old, but younger users can easily borrow or run accounts managed by others. Zuckerberg told a congressional hearing in March 2021 that “There are clearly a large number of people under the age of 13 who would want to use a service like Instagram.” As of July 2021, 31.4% of users are aged 25-34, 25.7% are aged 18-24, and 4.1% are aged 13-17.
The initial information surrounding ‘Instagram Youth’ came from Vishal Shah, Instagram's vice President of Product, on an employee message board, saying “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.”
Its development follows the December 2017 launch of Messenger Kids, a Facebook product aimed at children between the ages 6 and 12, which faced intense public scrutiny. The app allows parents to pre-approve text messages and video chats between children with family members and friends, yet in July 2019, it experienced a technical error which allowed un-approved users to join these group chats. Facebook also claimed to consult experts amid the development, but it was later revealed that financial relationships existed with the majority of organizations that advised the project.
One organization involved, The National PTA, says that Facebook donated money in 2017, which was used to fund roundtables and a survey. The National PTA President Jim Accomando said that “It is important that families are armed with resources and tools to help them take advantage of the opportunities that the digital world offers while building good digital habits and ensuring children have the skills they need to be responsible online.” But, the negative costs associated with broadening this access are currently being documented amid new research.
Over the past three years, Facebook employees have been conducting research into Instagram's impact on teens mental well-being from consistent exposure to the app. It includes diary studies and online surveys conducted in 2019 and 2020, and large scale surveys in 2021. The findings conclude that Instagram's effects are most notable to teenage girls. During a slide presentation in March 2020, researchers said that “32% of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse; comparisons on Instagram can change how young women view and describe themselves.” During Facebook's 2020 deep dive, researchers also found negative effects on teen boys, where 40% experience negative social comparison from the app.
This led to renewed scrutiny over Facebook's targeting of young age groups by Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) of and Reps. Kathy Castor (D-FL) of Florida and Lori Trahan (D-MA), in a letter on September 15 to Zuckerberg raising concerns about the company's plans to launch the new app. They claim that "Children and teens are uniquely vulnerable populations online, and these findings paint a clear and devastating picture of Instagram as an app that poses significant threats to young people's wellbeing,"
The Facebook Files, an investigative podcast series by The Wall Street Journal, also explores these internal Facebook documents, amidst the growing body of evidence against Facebook and their lack of solutions. In one episode, Adam Mosseri, CEO of Instagram, said he's focused on making sure they’re not exacerbating problems like social comparison and anxiety, which he claims are societal, rather than Instagram specific problems. Facebook's team of internal researchers have recommended tools to encourage breaks from the app, less celebrity and fashion content, and fewer ‘beautifying filters’, but none have been employed.
Instagrams addictive nature and polarizing climate now leads the debate on kids' access to social media. While creating a kid centric app may reinforce security and parental controls, tech companies can alternatively recognize existing faults within the apps that kids already use. Instagram and Facebook exhibit how intensely saturated this media can be, particularly for young children whose idiomatic social lives center on their peers.
The consequential evidence against Instagram for kids' potential success stems from Facebook's transparency issues, profound research on the potential negative ramifications, and distinct pushback from legislators. But, the inevitable exposure and access to different media forms has shown that “just because you have a platform for kids, it doesn't mean the kids are going to stay there.”