Why we don’t need an Instagram for kids

by Amber Robinson October 01, 2021

Facebook executives have announced work on an Instagram offering for children under 13, following on from the company’s rollout of the Facebook Messenger for Kids product last year.

Instagram currently has an age requirement of 13, not that it is enforced. A specific kids app should alleviate some fears parents have over the social network, such as the potential for grooming and harassment. Head of Instagram Adam Mosseri, said that there was no detailed plan for the app yet, but he hoped that “part of the solution is to create a version of Instagram for young people or kids where parents have transparency or control.”

Broadening the user base of Instagram is important given the battle the platform faces for the eyeballs of Gen Z, the most social media-savvy generation the world has seen. UK data from Ofcom reveals that 37% of 8-11yr olds have their own smartphone and 21% have a social media profile. For 11-15yr olds, 71% of users are on social media.

The networks currently winning the battle for young users are YouTube, Snapchat and TikTok, the latter which has had a meteoric rise over the past two years and forced Instagram to launch a competing ‘Reels’ video feature.

If Instagram can convince parents that a kids’ version of the app is safe at eight, the hope is the kids will stick with it once they are over 13, when they become a more valuable audience for advertisers.

The news has rightly been met with scepticism. While YouTube Kids is mainly a passive viewing experience, and Messenger for Kids allows children to converse with pre-approved contacts in a gated environment, Instagram was designed as a photo and video sharing platform. There is potential for image-based abuse, grooming from known contacts and exposure to unhealthy body image content, all of which Instagram grapples with on its existing platform for teens and adults. 

According to a 2019 Pew survey, 59 percent of teens have been bullied online while a 2017 survey by a nonprofit anti-bullying group found more than one in five 12-to-20-year-olds experience bullying specifically on Instagram. 

We already know that Instagram use is related to a variety of body image concerns, including body dissatisfaction and self-objectification. Perhaps most alarming, it is the app most reported in child grooming cases, particularly in lockdown. Instagram has acknowledged the problem with a few recent updates, such as removing the ability of adults to message children they are not connected to and providing warning messages and educational content to teens and parents. While such changes are welcome, they don’t integrate a feature for users to report suspicions to an authority – nor does Instagram’s AI keep track of potential perpetrators for further investigation. 

Even if Instagram for Kids only allows parent-approved contacts and transparent message histories, safety of the child using the app would be dependent on the parent actually properly vetting contacts and reading message transcripts. 

Of course, Instagram isn’t all bad. Like any social media app, it can provide a valuable platform for self-expression and for connection, particularly in COVID-times. Artists and creators have found new audiences and built supportive communities on the platform, and it was instrumental in helping disseminate infographics and resources in the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Likewise, social apps for children and teens can help build communication skills and help with personal expression and identity formation. In a safe environment, they can also help build digital literacy.

The question is whether the benefits of Instagram for Kids outweighs the risks, and so far, that doesn’t seem to be the case.