As if Mark Zuckerberg hasn’t given us enough to worry about, now he’s going after our kids.
Facebook-owned Instagram has children under 13 in its sights for a new version of the photo sharing application, according to an internal employee post that BuzzFeed News got its hands on in March. Confronted with the leak, Zuckerberg confirmed the plans the following week at a congressional hearing. What he failed to mention was the dismal track record Facebook already has in terms of mistreating children.
- Facebook and Instagram reported 20 million child sexual abuse images in 2020 and have consistently failed to promptly respond to child exploitation. UK police have documented more sexual grooming cases on Instagram than any other platform.
- Instagram is the worst social media platform for youth mental health, according to the Royal Society for Public Health. The risk of eating disorders increases with time on Instagram, bullying is rampant, and the platform’s focus on photo sharing corrodes kids’ developing sense of self and body image.
- Facebook, as it is wont to do, has gladly capitalized on this misery, selling advertisers on its ability to reach teens precisely when they are feeling bad about themselves. Its employees have referred to children who spend thousands of dollars on in-game purchases by the same “whale” moniker casinos reserve for lucrative gamblers.
- Many kids 12 years and younger already access Instagram, without permission, by simply lying when they sign up – something Facebook has acknowledged. In 2019, a design flaw in Messenger Kids allowed such children to circumvent parental controls and chat with total strangers.
For most companies, a single item from this appalling (and by no means exhaustive) list would be grounds to bar them from ever targeting young people again. But Facebook has always operated on a different level than the rest of us – a horrifying plane of cynicism and neglect where hooking kids and adults on its toxic brand of digital crack is far more important than health and safety.
For its part, Facebook claims it is launching the new application precisely because it wants to help alleviate the difficulties of providing social media to young children. According to Instagram, the new application will not feature advertising, will include parental controls, and will seek to address the age verification, child safety, mental health, and privacy concerns.
Child advocates, bipartisan lawmakers, and activists aren’t buying it. More than 100 organizations and academics signed an April letter urging Zuckerberg to cancel the effort and rebuking Facebook’s vision of “a version of Instagram that allows people under the age of 13 to safely use Instagram for the first time.” Children between the ages of 10 and 12 who already have Instagram accounts, the letter explained, “are unlikely to migrate to a ‘babyish’ version of the platform after they have experienced the real thing. The true audience for a kids’ version of Instagram will be much younger children who do not currently have accounts on the platform” – younger children, the letter continued, “who are particularly vulnerable to the platform’s manipulative and exploitative features.”
Joining the chorus of dissent, Senators Edward Markey and Richard Blumenthal, along with Representatives Lori Trahan and Kathy Castro, sent a letter of their own in April, peppering Zuckerberg with questions about the new application. Reciting many of the same problems noted by the child advocates, the letter recounted Facebook’s well-trod history of “failing to protect children’s privacy and safety, casting serious doubt on its ability to do so on a version of Instagram that is marketed to children.”
Unless Facebook can demonstrate “that a future version of Instagram for children would meet the highest standards of user protection,” the lawmakers urged that Facebook abandon the project. Zuckerberg may have considered himself lucky to get even that much of a concession – at a hearing back in March, House Energy and Commerce Committee Ranking Member Cathy McMorris Rodgers told him to his face that “You have broken my trust… Your platforms are my biggest fear as a parent.”
Facebook is, of course, not alone when it comes to Big Tech’s reckless disregard for kids. Sen. Markey and Rep. Castor, for example, have asked the FTC to examine whether Google’s app store is violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act with misleading marketing of children’s apps. And it only gets worse from there. YouTube’s algorithms reportedly put sexualized videos of children in front of pedophiles, and both YouTube and YouTube Kids have carried videos with suicide tips for children.
Imagine if it were reported that any company outside of Big Tech was profiting from pedophilia, child trafficking, and teen depression. Law enforcement would be climbing all over such an operation. But for Facebook? Well, its stock price has never been higher. And now it wants to usher even younger children into its toxic fold? This, despite the fact that Zuckerberg himself told Rep. Rodgers that his own three- and five-year-old “do not use our products.”
Nor should they. Nor should any of us, really. It touches an especially sensitive nerve when children are subjected to Facebook’s harms, but adults are no less vulnerable – we just happen to know better. As the world is learning all too well lately, everyone needs to act more responsibly, especially online. Our children might be the future, but we are the present, and it is up to us to stop Facebook’s Instagram Kids from terrorizing a new generation.