Facebook just announced that it’s pausing the rollout of Instagram Kids, a version of the platform for children under 13 years old while it works to “demonstrate the value and need for this product.” The pause comes after a Wall Street Journal story a couple of weeks ago about the company’s research on how Instagram affects teens. One finding? A third of teen girls who have body image issues say Instagram makes them worse.
I spoke with Jean Twenge, a psychologist and author of the book “iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood.” She said the effects could be even worse for younger kids. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Jean Twenge: Kids have a much harder time than adults putting down social media. It’s also harder for them to process oh, you know, those beautiful bodies on Instagram. You know those are photoshopped, and those aren’t realistic. That’s much harder for a 10- or 11-year-old to process than an older teen.
Marielle Segarra: One thing that Facebook and Instagram say is that kids are already online and they’re already using Instagram, and a specific Instagram for Kids would be a way for them to do this more safely. What do you say to that?
Twenge: Well, why not just enforce the existing age limit? Their stated policy is that you have to be 13 [years old] to be on the app. That’s the law, [Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act] from 1998, and it’s not enforced. They’re smart, they have plenty of smart coders. Why don’t they figure out a way to enforce that? That would be a way to start. The other problem is that 12-year-olds are not going to want to be on baby Instagram. They’re going to want to be on big Instagram because they don’t want to feel like a little kid anymore. So I’m not even sure that this premise is feasible. And the things that they’ve proposed about changing for Instagram for Kids — no advertising — I don’t think that really solves most of the problems with Instagram, particularly if they have likes and follower counts. You talk to teen girls, [and] that’s the first thing they’ll tell you: Instagram makes popularity into a number. And you think about how stressful that is for a 16-year-old, then imagine an 11-year-old.
Segarra: I mean, do you think it would be possible, to what you’re talking about with coding, to enforce the age limit? Like, I’m not really sure how that would work. How do you do that?
Twenge: I’m not sure how it would work either. But that’s for them to figure out. It’s their own policy, and it’s the law. They have to figure out some way to do it. I mean, just off the top of my head — I’m not a coder — one way to do it would be to require parental permission to sign up. If you’re 17 or younger, the way that has to be done for any kind of other marketing research or survey research. So many other situations, you have to have parental permission. And then perhaps, there could be a small charge on a credit card, say of a cent or something like that, in terms of verification. But they have lots of smart people. They have plenty of people who are smarter than I am, who can figure out how to code things. And it’s interesting to me that no one has insisted that they figure that out when we’re talking about kids.
Segarra: How important is this young demographic to Facebook and Instagram in terms of their growth projections?
Twenge: Well, the idea always in marketing is to get people hooked early. So if they can get 10-year-olds on the platform, their bet is, then they’ll continue using the platform as they grow older. And data on that age group is very, very valuable. It’s really hard to do marketing and even survey research on younger kids. Usually, you have to have parental permission. But hey, they get on Instagram Kids, then you would have access to all of that data about what they’re interested in. And that data is worth billions.
Segarra: One thing I wonder about is we know the risks of social media platforms like Instagram for Kids. In what way might Instagram add value to the life of a child? Like, what is the value proposition here?
Twenge: Well, it’s interesting. I think there are some things that social media is very useful for. It can be useful for distant friends keeping in touch with each other. It can often be useful for activism or building a brand. But there’s other ways to do that as well. I think we have to think carefully about, well, these benefits. How can we weigh the benefits versus the risks at each stage of life? And for an adult, the benefits might very well outweigh the risks. When we’re talking about young kids, 12 and under, I think then it seems much more clear that the risks are going to outweigh the benefits, especially for a platform like Instagram that places so much emphasis on image.
Segarra: I wonder, do you think there are any guardrails that could be put in place on an Instagram for Kids, for instance, that would make the benefits outweigh the cost?
Twenge: I don’t think Instagram in particular can be fixed for younger kids. And given its emphasis on image and likes and followers, I don’t think there’s a way to fix it when we’re talking about very young kids. If they wanted to try to make some changes for minors, say, 13 to 17, they could consider maybe hiding the follower count for kids in that age group or maybe putting a time limit on the number of hours per day that kids can be on the app.
Related links: More insight from Marielle Segarra
Facebook declined to comment. In a blog post, the company said its research also found positive impacts for many teens.
Facebook’s post shares some other findings. For instance, a sizable percentage of teen girls say Instagram helps them deal with anxiety, loneliness, sadness and family stress. A Facebook executive will testify in front of Congress this week about this very topic — Facebook, Instagram and kids’ mental health. Already, several lawmakers have said that pausing Instagram Kids is not enough.
One thing to remember is that what you see on social media, including Instagram, is very often a lie. People who are struggling deeply with anxiety and depression may look like they have perfect lives. Here’s a story illustrating that from ESPN.
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