Attorneys general urge Zuckerberg to abandon preteen Instagram

Attorneys general from 44 United States territories and states urged the Facebook CEO to drop plans to launch a version of Instagram for kids under 13.

Facebook in a statement Monday said it is exploring Instagram for kids to give parents more control over the content their children may already be accessing online and will make every effort to protect young users, including by not showing advertising on the platform [File: US Senate Judiciary Committee via Reuters]

The attorney generals of 44 United States territories and states are urging Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg to abandon plans to launch a version of Instagram for children under the age of 13.

“It appears that Facebook is not responding to a need, but instead creating one, as this platform appeals primarily to children who otherwise do not or would not have an Instagram account,” the attorney generals said in a letter (PDF) sent to Zuckerberg.

Signed by the attorneys general of 40 states along with the attorneys general of the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, the letter underscores how social media can be harmful to children’s physical, emotional, and mental wellness.

“Use of social media can be detrimental to the health and well-being of children, who are not equipped to navigate the challenges of having a social media account,” the attorney generals said.

An increase in mental distress, depression, body image issues and suicidal thoughts in young people has been attributed to their use of social media, the attorney generals added.

Children and adolescents are simply not ready or prepared to handle the myriad challenges that come with having an Instagram account because they lack the developed understanding of privacy and are not yet equipped to determine what content to share on these platforms.

Children under 13 may also not understand the permanency of the content they do share online.

“They are also simply too young to navigate the complexities of what they encounter online, including inappropriate content and online relationships where other users, including predators, can cloak their identities using the anonymity of the internet,” the attorney generals said.

BuzzFeed News in March reported that Instagram is planning to launch a version for preteen kids.

Last month, nonprofit organisation Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) urged Zuckerberg to cancel plans to launch the Instagram app for children under 13, stressing that it would put the preteens at “great risk”. The effort of the attorneys general is also backed by CCFC.

“Instagram, in particular, exploits young people’s fear of missing out and desire for peer approval to encourage children and teens to constantly check their devices and share photos with their followers,” CCFC said in its letter (PDF).

The attorneys general on Monday underscored that cyberbullying among children is a critical problem that a new Instagram platform could likely exacerbate. Kids may act crueller from behind a computer – a phenomenon that is prevalent now during the COVID-19 pandemic, as children spend more time on social media.

The attorney generals also cited that Facebook has a record of failing to protect the safety and privacy of children, despite claiming that its products have strict privacy controls.

For example, Facebook’s Messenger Kids app, designed for kids between the ages of six and 12, contained a design flaw that allowed children to navigate around restrictions on interactions and join group chats with strangers that were not previously approved by the children’s parents, they said, citing a 2019 report.

For its part, Facebook in a statement Monday said it is exploring Instagram for kids to give parents more control over the content their children may already be accessing online and will make every effort to protect young users, including by not showing advertising on the platform.

“We are developing these experiences in consultation with experts in child development, child safety and mental health, and privacy advocates,” the company said. “We also look forward to working with legislators and regulators, including the nation’s attorneys general.”

Facebook also said it is a founding sponsor of the Digital Wellness Lab at Boston Children’s Hospital, launched in March to study the effects of digital technology on kids’ “brains, bodies, and behaviors.”

The following attorney generals signed on to Monday’s letter: Massachusetts, Nebraska, Vermont, Tennessee, Alaska, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin, Wyoming, District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies

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