Facebook faces challenges in developing Instagram Kids

By Barbara Gutierrez

Facebook faces challenges in developing Instagram Kids

By Barbara Gutierrez
Regina Ahn, an assistant professor who studies media literacy and education, parental mediation, and social media, notes that creating a social media site specifically for children is a tough task.

Facebook recently announced that it will pause its development of Instagram Kids after heated criticism by parents and children advocates who claim that such a platform could be dangerous to kids’ mental health.

The announcement comes amid media reports that Facebook knew from its own research that social media platforms such as Instagram—the photo and video sharing social networking service owned by Facebook—increased mental health issues, particularly for girls. These included depression, lack of self-esteem, and even thoughts of suicide, according to The Wall Street Journal. 

The social media mammoth has also faced criticism from whistleblower Frances Haugen, a former Facebook data scientist, who claims that it is more interested in profits rather than the safety of its more than 2.8 billion users. Haugen testified on the issue before Congress on Tuesday.

Regina Ahn, an assistant professor in the University of Miami School of Communication’s Department of Strategic Communication—who has studied social media, media literacy, and parental mediation—said the issue of social media and its effects on young girls has been documented for a while.

Preteens and teens are at a vulnerable age in which they are still developing their cognitive skills, yet they yearn for independence from adults, she noted. Social media allows them the opportunity to connect with friends, influencers, and celebrities. But many of the images, advertisements, and messages they encounter while online could potentially negatively influence their body image, consequently having a bad effect on their mental health, Ahn pointed out. 

Instagram often displays images of flawless female and male bodies. That’s because users can enhance their images by using special filters and photo editing apps to make themselves look slimmer. They can also give themselves  glowing skin, fuller lips, higher cheekbones, brighter eyes, and perfect their images in many ways.   

But according to Ahn, studies show that when girls face images of other girls’ bodies and faces, which are often edited with retouching techniques, they don’t take the retouching into consideration and they just think that they do not measure up.

“Due to ‘perfect images’ on social media, beauty standards and ideals are somewhat unrealistically normalized on social media. Consequently, preteen or teen girls are likely to underestimate their body image and how they look,” said Ahn. “They are more likely to think they have more freckles or a fatter stomach, for instance.” This leads to lower self-esteem in many young girls and sometimes results in depression.

Another feature of Instagram and other social media platforms that adds to the pressures for youngsters is the constant push to portray a positive or perfect life, said Ahn.  

“I see a lot of social media content that is very skewed to not sharing negative images especially because many preteens are afraid of being judged by their followers,” she said. “Positive content promotes more likes.” Getting more likes or shares than one’s friends in social media is called social currency to its users. It means that the user is popular.

The spread of misinformation—including on platforms such as YouTube and TikTok—is also a problem that can influence young people, Ahn stated. Most preteens and teens do not have the experience or knowledge to distinguish fact from fallacy. 

“There are many videos and information that sound true, but it is not,” said Ahn, who noted that she has seen information against the COVID-19 vaccine on several platforms that is false.

“In a similar sense, there [is also] misinformation on social media regarding diet fads which may be dangerous to people’s health,” she said. “Lies spread fast on the internet.” She added that it is crucial that parents maintain a close eye on the information their children consume online and teach them how to ascertain if the information is legitimate.    

“Children’s media literacy is not advanced yet, and without certain guidance, they may recklessly internalize what they see on social media. They need guidance as well as conversations with adults on how to interpret and apply social media messages,” she emphasized. “It is important that parents spend time with them, walking them through content.”

Ahn said that she believes Facebook’s decision to halt the development of Instagram Kids is a sound one. Facebook should take the time to create a safe internet space for teens, free of advertisements and with algorithms that would ensure avoidance of hate speech and other negative forms of communication.

She admits that developing a kids' social media site is a challenging task for Facebook.

“I understand Facebook’s intention, but we need to think about whether kids’ apps will actually help resolve the issues of body shaming and mental health,” Ahn indicated. “As other policymakers, parents, and consumer advocates noted, developing a new app for a child may make the issue worse—making children use social media at an earlier age. Without concrete plans for children and families’ safety, privacy, and mental health, Facebook should cautiously reconsider developing Instagram Kids.”