International child protection groups are speaking out about leaked plans for Facebook to create an “Instagram for children” – a separate version of the app, which would target children under the age of 13
The proposal for an “Instagram for children” led to an international rebuttal, with several NGOs and charities writing an open letter to Facebook. In the letter, signed by organisations like the Center for Digital Democracy and Norwegian Cancer Society, an argument against the app refers to mental health and online grooming risks.
The argument against Instagram for children
When it comes to mental health, self-perception is one of the ongoing, open wounds of Instagram. Much has been written about the ‘Instagram face’, an ethnically ambiguous look born generally of surgeries and filters, while images that paint impossible body standards have become an embedded part of the Instagram experience.
The open letter notes that children are at a tender, formative stage of their lives. It explains that: “children experience incredible growth in their social competencies, abstract thinking, and sense of self.
“The platform’s relentless focus on appearance, self-presentation, and branding presents challenges to adolescents’ privacy and wellbeing.”
Instagram is the platform with the highest rates of sexual grooming, according to UK police reports. Investigations have found over 20 million child sexual abuse images on the platform in 2020 alone. While the app is being described as a safe place for children to be online, there have been digital failures in the past with Facebook’s app, Messenger Kids – allowing children to use a safety loophole and communicate with strangers.
A recent study found that 16 year old boys were most likely to experience loneliness online, which led to internet addiction. If these adolescents had access to social platforms before the age of ten, the existence of digital loneliness would take on an increasingly sinister insinuation – an opening for exploitation.
The open letter explains further that: “Adolescent girls report feeling pressure to post sexualized selfies as a means of generating attention and social acceptance from their peers.”
‘Sexualised and unrealistic body images’, says psychologist
There has been a 193% increase in UK anorexia admissions to hospital, for girls under the age of 19. This happened over a period of seven years, from 2010 to 2017. We asked Dr Lynne Green, a consultant clinical psychologist, about the startling rise in figures.
She commented: “Eating disorders do most commonly affect girls between the ages of 13 and 17. This group has several common factors – the most important being: they are going through puberty, so their bodies are changing; they are female, so our culture particularly subjects them to sexualised and unrealistic body images that they may not identify with; and they are coming of age in an increasingly digital world, so it is difficult for them to create a safe space that is reflective of real bodies and lifestyles.”
“sexualised and unrealistic body images that they may not identify with”
Dr Green describes an inescapable digital realm where young girls build their selfhood, only to have it destroy them later. When it comes to even younger children, how would their less-developed senses navigate this balance between performing what people want to see and protecting their minds?
Instagram representative Stephanie Otway commented: “The reality is that kids are online. They want to connect with their family and friends, have fun and learn, and we want to help them do that in a way that is safe and age-appropriate.”
Will the UK accept an Instagram for children?
Overall, the letter says that children will be psychologically harmed by exposure to an online culture that glorifies a highly specific kind of beauty and the currency of likes – with the potential of interaction with individuals seeking to exploit young children.
In the UK, online harms regulation was meant to be created in 2018 to address this exact issue. It was introduced specially in relation to a case of suicide that was closely interlinked to the use of Instagram. To date, no online harms legislation has been passed.
Investigations by BIJ revealed that Facebook threatened to pull their UK investment if a legislation with serious teeth changed how online platforms function.
Commenting after the a debate in parliament on 18 March, 2021, Shadow Digital secretary Jo Stevens said: “Keeping children and vulnerable people safe online should be one of the most important issues for this government. Instead, we keep seeing this law kicked further down the road.”