Experts are wary of “Instagram Kids”

Instagram has begun censoring adult content to protect its younger audience. Brittany Tankersley | Photographer

By Samantha Bradsky | Reporter

Facebook paused the company’s building of “Instagram Kids” — an Instagram specifically geared toward youth age 13 and under — on Sept. 27 after facing considerable backlash from lawmakers and the general public.

According to a Wall Street Journal investigation, Facebook formed a team tasked with studying preteens and figuring out how to compete with newer social media platforms coming into the scene. The Journal obtained leaked documents referring to children as a “valuable but untapped audience.”

The controversy has caused questions to rise regarding the morality of social media platforms targeting youth. Facebook stated that the company believes “building ‘Instagram Kids’ is the right thing to do.” At the same time, lawmakers have called for a complete abandonment of the project, pointing toward the adverse effects that social media — particularly Instagram — has on the mental health of youth.

Angela Gorrell — an author, expert on new media and assistant professor of practical theology — gave her opinion on Facebook targeting youth to stay in the game.

“Facebook has this really good mission,” Gorrell said. “Every platform actually has a pretty good mission statement — like really good things that they want to do in the world — but they all want to make money too. In particular, Facebook and Instagram are interested in ‘How do we make money by getting your attention, keeping your attention and holding your attention, so we can make money off of your attention?’”

Currently, Instagram prohibits users under age 13 from joining the platform. However, the prohibition is not entirely effective.

According to Instagram’s website, the “Instagram Kids” project was started “to address an important problem seen across our industry: kids are getting phones younger and younger, misrepresenting their age and downloading apps that are meant for those 13 or older.”

“I talk a lot about how we need to train young people to use social media similar to how we train them to use a car,” Gorrell said. “We don’t just put a 16-year-old in a car and let them figure it out on their own. I think we’ve got to think about social media in the same way. We’ve got to think of it like cars; cars are helpful in our lives, but they’re also very dangerous.”

The irony in the world of the constantly connected exists in studies revealing increased loneliness and isolation. According to the Royal Society for Public Health, anxiety and depression rates have increased by 70% in the past 25 years. Social media has also been linked to increased rates of anxiety, depression and poor sleep.

“The impact of social media on all of us and the research being done on this area brings concern to my mind when learning about this new platform [Instagram Kids] and its focus,” Carroll Crowson, associate director for the Center for Academic Success and Engagement, said.

“[Instagram] nurtures possibility in youth’s lives,” Gorrell said. “There is the possibility of connection of learning, of expanding their imagination, of helping them to engage with their creativity … and share it with the world. But it’s also a place — the new media landscape, Instagram in particular — where there’s profound brokenness. It can be a place of woundedness, a place where there’s harassment, anger, flame wars, a place that nurtures jealousy, that can nurture anxiety and depression and cause us to feel disconnected from other people — unseen and unheard.”

With the different sides of the social media landscape forced to coexist, Gorrell acknowledged the positives in utilizing Instagram.

“We can learn a lot,” Gorrell said. “We can listen to people online, follow them, friend them. We can look at people’s posts, share people’s posts. And we can learn a lot about the world.”

Gorrell noted that the data has not been released in full regarding Facebook’s leaked documents.

“[Social media] can be helpful in our lives,” Gorrell said. “It’s also pretty dangerous for our mental well-being. We just got to prepare youth to build it, use it in ways that are helpful in their lives and also have boundaries.”