Oct. 7, 2021 -- How young is “too young” for Instagram? Since news broke that Instagram was developing a platform for kids, the idea has been highly debated.
“Instagram Kids” is being designed for kids ages 10 to 12 years old and will feature parental controls, no advertisements, and other child safety features, according to Adam Mosseri, head of Instagram.
Some parents have said the ability to keep an eagle eye on their kids’ social media activity would be welcome.
But other parents, experts, and lawmakers have said that even with added controls, Instagram is no place for kids.
Those concerned about Instagram Kids have gotten at least a temporary reprieve. Facebook, the company that owns Instagram, announced last week that it is now delaying plans for its new kid-friendly Instagram service.
“While we stand by our decision to develop this experience, we’ve decided to pause to give us time to work with parents, experts, policymakers and regulators, to listen to their concerns, and to demonstrate the value and importance of this project for younger teens online today,” Mosseri said in a statement on Twitter.
The delay also comes after TheWall Street Journal published an investigative report showing research done by Facebook revealed that mental health struggles for teens, including body image issues and suicidal thoughts, have been linked to time spent on Instagram.
Young girls are particularly affected, findings show.
One now-revealed presentation slide of a study done by Facebook found that 13% of British teens and 6% of American teens traced their suicidal thoughts back to their time on Instagram.
Facebook has rejected the Wall Street Journal’s portrayal of their research, saying that the report lacked key context surrounding their findings.
Underage Social Media Users
While a number of social media platforms have age restrictions, kids can easily lie about their age, since no real form of proof is required to open an account.
For example, to open an Instagram or Facebook account, you are required to be at least 13.
But an astounding 45% of kids between 9 and 12 years old use Facebook every day, and 40% of kids in the same age group use Instagram, according to a report by Thorn, an anti-human trafficking organization that builds technologies to fight child sexual abuse.
While some parents have already taken a hard stance one way or another about Instagram Kids, others are still weighing the pros and cons.
Christina Wilds, author of Dear Little Black Girl, and a media and talent relations specialist, documents her life on Instagram, where she has more than 10,000 followers. Wilds lives in New York City with her husband, entertainer Mack Wilds, and their young daughter, Tristyn.
Wilds, 32, says that while she sees both positive and negative aspects of Instagram Kids, knowing her child can't access certain content would make her feel better as a parent.
“If a 12-year-old were to go on Instagram right now, on the platform as-is, there’s nothing stopping them from seeing the inappropriate content that is put out on a daily basis,” she says.
“If someone drops a nude photo on Instagram and it goes viral, there’s no parental control, no way for me to stop my child from seeing what’s popular during that time,” Wilds says.
Is a Kids Platform the Answer?
While there are serious concerns about child safety online, some say creating social media platforms for children, like Instagram Kids, shouldn’t be viewed as the only way to protect youngsters.
“The myth of Instagram’s inevitably is just that -- a myth. Our children don’t have to be on social media. For that matter, neither do we. Facebook does not, in fact, need to continue to grow. We could make policy decisions to stop it,” Christine Emba, an opinion columnist and editor at The Washington Post, wrote in a recent article.
It’s also important to keep in mind that not all parents would be able to closely monitor their child’s Instagram Kids account, especially single parents and families where both parents work or have multiple jobs, according to Jeff Hancock, PhD, a professor of communication at Stanford University and founding director of the Stanford Social Media Lab.
“For some families, that would work really well; families that have the time and attention resources to be able to keep monitoring their kids and being active in that,” he says.
“But not all families have that. A system that relies on a parent's attention to monitor it is going to be problematic.”
Negative mental health effects could also be a major problem, according to Jeremy Tyler, PsyD, an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry and director of psychotherapy in the outpatient psychiatry clinic at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.
“We already know that there are a lot of kids slightly older than them, who are going into dark places from these platforms and having some negative effects from them,” he says.
“I think it is something that we shouldn’t take lightly.”
Separating the Real From the Fake
One key reason an Instagram service for kids could be a problem is that kids under 13 years old are still in a developmental phase of life, and are often very impressionable, Tyler says.
This can be particularly concerning when it comes to filtered or edited photos.
Apps like Perfect Me and Body Tune give you the option to slim and reshape how your body looks in your photos. You can enhance certain features, and smooth and touch up your skin, among other edits.
But unlike adults, kids often have a much harder time knowing the difference between what’s real and what’s fake, Tyler says.
“People are getting to put out a very filtered and different look of themselves, which creates a perception for the younger kids that this is normal,” he says.
“They see something that gets 10,000 likes and tons of comments with hearts and thumbs-up and positive reinforcement -- socially, they’re learning through that observation and modeling. Cognitively, they can’t really decipher that it isn't necessarily real life,” he says.
Bree Lenehan, an author and content creator, echoes Tyler’s point.
“As a pre-teen, you’re learning and developing your beliefs, morals, personality traits, values, what you do or don’t like -- you’re practically a sponge soaking up information. So, when you bring social media into the mix, this can be tricky,” says Lenehan, 25.
And it’s not only public figures that Instagram users compare themselves to, says actress and content creator Asia Jackson.
“It's not just celebrities that you follow, it’s people that you know,” she says. “And no one wants to post negatives of their lives, they only want to post positives.”
“I think that a lot of these mental health issues stem from the platform with the seemingly perfectly curated lives of people.”
Keeping It Real
Lenehan, author of the fantasy novel Pembrim: The Hidden Alcove, says she struggled with a negative body image for a large portion of her life.
She recalls a time last year when her partner, Dylan, took photos of her by the pool.
“I felt terrible looking back at the photos where I wasn’t posing or ready for the photo. I usually always deleted those in-between, relaxed photos because I was so hard on myself,” she says.
“But this time, in particular, I didn’t. I knew I didn’t want to be so hard on myself anymore.”
She challenged herself to upload these relaxed, unposed photos every week, in a series she calls “Real Me Mondays.”
“At the start, it was just for me; to overcome my fear of not being good enough, my fear of other people judging me. It was terrifying. But I noticed as time went on that it was really encouraging and helping others too,” Lenehan says.
Lenehan, who has over 463,000 followers on Instagram, says after the past year of posting her Real Me Monday series, she’s become completely comfortable in her own skin.
“I appreciate so much more what my body does for me than the way it looks now, and I hope to encourage others to feel the same way in their skin too,” she says.
Jackson also uses her social media platforms -- she has more than 82,000 followers on Instagram and 440,000 followers on YouTube -- to raise awareness about issues she’s passionate about, including mental health.
Last year, Jackson, 27, decided to share with her followers that she struggled with depression and was being treated with antidepressants.
“I figured that if I just spoke authentically about my own experience, that it might resonate with a lot of people,” she says.
“A lot of people were saying that they’re glad that they came across this video because these are conversations that they have at home with their parents or with their family or even with their friends.”
She says this is one of many positive aspects of social media.
Jackson, who is Black and Filipino, created a hashtag #MagandangMorenx, which means “beautiful brown girl,” to challenge colorism in Filipino communities.
“I got an email from someone after that hashtag went viral, and they told me that seeing people being proud of their skin color in that hashtag changed their mind about getting a skin whitening treatment,” Jackson says.
“Just something that they saw online changed their mind about getting a serious cosmetic procedure.”
Wilds says one major goal of her Instagram platform is to inspire other mothers to both be themselves and accept themselves without the pressures of social media.
“I think a lot of times we see the perfect snapback, the perfect pregnancy, and that’s not everyone’s reality,” she says.
“I want to set a realistic expectation for what motherhood really looks like -- without the nanny, without the lipo surgery, or the mommy makeover.”
When she sees other moms admiring her post-baby bod in the comment section, she cheers them on right back.
“Whenever I take long walks or I take a run, I post it on my story and I tag other moms who I know are going through the same things that I am going through as a way of encouraging them, and vice versa.”
Much stronger safety measures are needed if we want to ensure a healthy social media environment for kids, according to Hancock.
“I would love to see that before you use some of these technologies, especially if you’re a young person, you have to take a course -- and not just a little webinar,” he says.
“You have to have taken a course in your school, for example, and gotten a certain grade.
And until you do that, you’re not allowed to use this technology.”
Balancing positive aspects of Instagram, like self-expression and creativity, with negative aspects, such as social comparison and intensified concerns over one’s looks and body, could be a tall order, with Instagram being largely image-based, he says.
“Is it going to be something where we never allow young people to have technologies like that? I don’t know. There’s lots of reasons that it can be useful for people, but it’s not clear to me that we need something for that age group.”