Social media platform Facebook plans to launch a version of Instagram for children as young as 6 years old, as the current Instagram policy forbids children under the age of 13 from using the service.
In a recent blog post, Instagram stated that the aim of these plans is to make the platform safer for the younger members of the community, and give parents more control. Instagram also stated that whilst many people are honest about their age, young people can lie about their date of birth. That is therefore why the platform says it is investing in innovative technologies that could create a safer online environment for younger users.
Nonetheless, policymakers, legal experts and public health authorities worldwide have been leading an outcry, protesting against an Instagram platform for kids as they say it would cause more harm than good. The belief is that it is not safe for children under 13 to be active on social media, as this experience can be very harmful to their developmental growth.
One therefore asks: since social media, by its own nature, encourages interaction through messages and the sharing of content – is it safe for children to be active on social media?
Fear of missing out
TheJournal.mt reached out the Cybercrime Unit at the Malta Police Force, and they expressed their greatest worry:
“The biggest concern lies in the fact that children may be divulging private information, interacting with unknown persons and be exposed to content which is not appropriate to their age. Furthermore, when such services designed specifically for certain age groups are created and increase in popularity, there is the perceived pressure for signing up as a result of the fear of “missing out”.
Dr Ian Gauci, Managing Partner at GTG Advocates & Afilexion Alliance, also shares the same concerns on this fear of “missing out”, and adds that if Instagram’s idea comes to fruition, it will likely increase the use of Instagram by young children, and at that age they are particularly vulnerable to the platform’s manipulative and exploitative features:
“Instagram exploits young people’s fear of missing out and the desire for peer approval to encourage children and teens to constantly check their devices and share photos with their followers. Children will become like digital zombies, fixated on showing off their appearance online, gratified with the comments and likes of other users and emulating their social media influencers. Facebook’s real goal here is to expand its lucrative and highly profitable Instagram franchise to an under-13s demographic. If Facebook is allowed to tap into this new segment, it will have the potential to harvest the data of children as young as six, and this poses serious threats to their privacy, health, and well-being as well as to the future of our society.”
In her comments to TheJournal.mt, the Commissioner for Children Ms Pauline Miceli said that in principle, a kids social media platform may be a good idea as it could serve as a steppingstone for adolescents prior to using general social media platforms. She insists, that this calls for many safeguards to be put in place:
“The age verification system should be fool-proof so as to ensure that only adolescents of the same age are using this platform as the way things stand, children often lie about their age. Without tight safeguards, Kids Instagram could easily become an easy platform for predators to specifically target children. As things stand the tech giants have failed children and they must prove that they are serious about protecting children in the digital environment, particularly their right to protection from all forms of harm and their right to privacy and protection of data.”
Tech giants have failed children and they must prove that they are serious about protecting children in the digital environment.
Creating a safe environment
However, is it even possible for Instagram to create a safe environment for children to engage in? Would the privacy controls be enough to protect the children?
The Cybercrime Unit tells us that a “safe environment” can only be created through proper mechanisms that provide proper moderation of the content being shared, identify suspicious and risky behaviour, authenticate users through verification of any information provided and facilitate the reporting of illegal and inappropriate content as well as proper parental supervision.
Further to this, Dr Ian Gauci believes that young children are not equipped to handle the array of challenges that come with having a social media account, let alone an Instagram account. This is because children do not yet have a developed personality nor an understanding of privacy. More specifically, they may not fully comprehend what content is appropriate for them to share with others, the permanency of content they post on social media, and who has access to what they share online.
Research flagged by Dr Gauci demonstrates that social media can be harmful to the physical, emotional, and mental well-being of children. The National Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children in the UK in 2019, found a “200% rise in recorded instances in the use of Instagram to target and abuse children.” Another research, Elia Abi-Jaoude et al., Smartphones, Social Media Use and Youth Mental Health, (2020) also shows a link between young people’s use of social media and the “increase in mental distress, self-injurious behaviour and suicidality among youth.” In fact, the same research found that an online-monitoring company tracking the activity of 5.4 million children found that “Instagram was frequently flagged for suicidal ideation, depression and body image concerns.”
The Police Cybercrime Unit has also noted an increase in the production and sharing of self-made indecent material by young children. In some of these cases, the material in question was sent to persons the children had barely met online. The Unit has also seen instances of children sharing information such as their home address and the route they walk when going to school, placing these children in physical danger. Unfortunately, in most of these cases, it transpires that the parents would have little to no idea of what their children are actually doing online and with whom they are interacting. These types of cases are definitely an eye-opener on the risks involved and the importance of parental supervision and proper mechanisms.
The Police Cybercrime Unit has also seen instances of children sharing information such as their home address and the route they walk when going to school, placing these children in physical danger.
Truth be told, there has been an increased focus on the privacy of communications also within the legislative framework. This has led to a situation where companies which were implementing tools to detect child abuse material on their system found themselves being prevented from doing so as a result of the European Electronic Communications Code which came into force in December 2020. The Malta Police Force, through its chairing of the European Union Cybercrime Task Force (EUCTF) took an active role in advocating for a temporary derogation of this legislation vis-à-vis Online Child Sexual Exploitation measures and a temporary agreement is now in place.
In order to increase further awareness, the Malta Police Force and the Commissioner for Children form part of the BeSmartOnline! initiative which brings together various stakeholders with the aim of creating awareness about online safety amongst children, parents and educators. BeSmartOnline! aims to ensure that young people make good use of social media through awareness raising through local initiatives and participation in key European and international fora. BeSmartOnline! also offers the services of a supportline and a hotline to deal with issues related to online safety and abuse.
Dr Ian Gauci urges the relevant authorities to carry out more targeted societal education on the effects of social media, and believes that as a society we should ask ourselves why we would allow our kids to live in a heterotopia, rather than appreciate and engage in the precious life which was bestowed on us.
Do you agree with Instagram for kids aged 13 and under?
Interesting Fact: Facebook bought Instagram for $1 billion back in 2012 and the photo-sharing tool has become one of its most popular products. Today, Instagram has over one billion users and contributes over $20 billion to Facebook’s annual revenue.