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Instagram for Kids: Doomed from the Start

Under intense scrutiny from lawmakers and childrens’ advocates, Facebook has, once again, reluctantly pivoted to a promise that it will listen first and act only after that. This week the company, which owns Instagram,  paused its controversial efforts to build an “Instagram for Kids” that would allow kids under 13 years of age to share photos and comments with each other providing they had parental permissions. Facebook said that the company is taking a timeout on Instagram for Kids because it is “the right thing to do”, adding that it would “work with parents, experts, and policymakers to demonstrate the value and need for this product.” (It made this decision after a devastatingly critical series of articles in The Wall Street Journal, with related follow-ons in The New York Times and Washington Post.)

Putting the Instagram for kids project on pause is a big concession for Facebook.  Those who give the company the benefit of the doubt will say this marks a big and thoughtful step from a company whose mantra has too often been “move fast and break things”. Harsher critics will say the embattled company will simply move on to more lucrative waters like its new infatuation with the metaverse in order to win the next generation of consumers. But whichever way it turns, Facebook has lost another round in its campaign to earn public trust.

Facebook’s Inability to Move into New Marketplaces

The company has a history of ill-timed rollouts as it struggles to remain the dominant social network and keep attracting new generations of users. For example, it abandoned and then downsized its 2019 plans to forge into the cryptocurrency space with its Libra token amidst public outcry.

Facebook Messenger for Kids, now available in the U.S., Canada, Peru, and Mexico, suffered serious public backlash when it was introduced in 2017, though it has operated mostly without incident since.  It is meant to be a safe way for parents to give children under 13 access to instant messaging. Anecdotal evidence suggests that despite creating a reasonable set of guardrails, most parents who tried the platform were either not tech-savvy enough or committed enough to use Messenger for Kids routinely. As we publish, Facebook is facing extensive inquiries from Congressional lawmakers, looking at everything from its role in vaccine misinformation to whether it contributed to the January 6th insurrection. A Senate hearing on September 30 found a Facebook safety official unable to convincingly reply to legislators from both parties with strong criticisms of how it manages Instagram.

Timing and Good Will

Is it Facebook’s missteps, timing, or lack of goodwill that makes its efforts to stake out the kids’ space so polarizing? Other video-sharing-based companies have carved a relatively smooth path to their walled gardens for kids, notably YouTube and TikTok.  While not perfect, YouTube for Kids makes it fairly straightforward for a parent to set up access to age-appropriate videos that have been vetted for appropriateness and are presented free of ads. And TikTok offers settings that provide additional safety and privacy features for kids under 13. Why does Facebook/Instagram get so much pushback? Timing is everything.

The conversation surrounding Instagram for Kids became much more frenzied when the Wall Street Journal released its series of reports called the Facebook Files. Based on a whistleblower’s internal documents and memos, one part of the expose reveals that Facebook has been, for quite some time, conducting numerous studies into how its photo-sharing app affects its millions of young users. The documents suggest it is well aware of Instagram’s potentially harmful effects, notably amongst teenage girls. Instagram can exacerbate negative body image issues, anxiety, depression, and even suicidal thoughts.

Facebook retaliated with a statement saying the WSJ document was taken out of context and that the data shows teens can benefit from photo-sharing sites. And the WSJ  has now published some of the documents, which do show plenty of positive effects for teens from Instagram. At the end of the day, it would be surprising if Facebook hadn’t done its research and identified the negatives. It shouldn’t come as a big surprise that Instagram might cause harm. Like most other social media products, the double-edged sword is omnipresent. The question is: What will Facebook do to mitigate the most toxic effects? In all the controversy, that question has not really been addressed by the company. And it certainly wasn’t answered on September 30 to the senators’ satisfaction.

All Hands on the Metaverse?

The “for kids digital content” market has always been a bear.  That’s even more true when the content is user-created and shared. From a revenue perspective, this market appears to be a losing proposition.  You can’t advertise to these kids, for example. Under COPPA laws you can’t gather any personal information. And kids don’t typically own credit cards to purchase things. Yet enterprising children everywhere seem to either cajole parents to release the purse strings or figure workarounds, because they’re more tech-savvy than their parents. I’ve long thought that kids are so important to the future of the Internet that it might be wiser to create a nationally-funded effort — a sort of PBS of the Internet — where kids’ safety was paramount.

Moving forward, it’s clear that Facebook is in the hot seat for Instagram for Kids, and just generally more subject to strong criticism than when it purchased Instagram in 2012. It was initially run more independently, until its two founders, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, left in late 2018. Adam Mosseri, the longtime Facebook executive who is the latest CEO of Instagram, has vociferously defended the company’s decision to put the kids project on pause.

At the same time, Andrew Bosworth, Facebook’s newly appointed CTO, has been super-vocal on a related matter, cheerleading Facebook’s newest mission to become a metaverse company. And maybe that’s the direction Facebook/Instagram will move toward, as it plows millions of dollars into a campaign to build a socially-responsible metaverse while rebranding itself from a social media company to a metaverse one. It’s a bold, long-visioned play, even though Facebook is a relative latecomer to the metaverse. (The Washington Post, however, portrays the metaverse pivot as partly a head fake that aims to distract regulators and legislators from the company’s separate mistakes.)

Facebook’s past, the current Instagram Kids media coverage, and future metaverse issues are more closely tied than you might think. The question is whether Facebook will continue wading into the current quagmire of children’s digital content or double down and focus on the next generation gold rush — for kids who will inevitably be active in the metaverse. (Read a Techonomy summary of that trend here.) I think it would be best for the company to adopt a “tech-Darwinism” view that they’ll make more money reaching out to kids where they’ll be tomorrow, and ditch Instagram for Kids entirely.

Extra credit: Watch this recent Atlantic Interview with Andrew Bosworth to understand the company’s ambitious metaverse plans.

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