Facebook to pause work on Instagram kids version amid controversy

The social-media app had been developing a version for children that would be ad free and allow parents to monitor their children’s activity.

“I still firmly believe that it’s a good thing to build a version of Instagram that’s safe for tweens, but we want to take the time to talk to parents and researchers and safety experts and get to more consensus about how to move forward,” Mr. Mosseri said in a Monday-morning appearance on NBC’s “Today” show.

Facebook’s plan for a children’s version of Instagram has faced criticism this year from lawmakers concerned that the app can be harmful to young people’s mental health. The new version was to be designed for children younger than 13. Instagram bars children younger than that from its platform, but acknowledges that many join anyway.

The Wall Street Journal reported this month that internal research conducted by Facebook found that Instagram is harmful for a sizable percentage of young users, most notably teenage girls.

“We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls,” said one slide from a 2019 internal presentation, summarizing research about teen girls who experience the issues.

In May, attorneys general from 44 states and territories urged Facebook to abandon plans for a children’s Instagram platform, arguing that children aren’t equipped to use social media and that there are better ways for them to connect with friends and family. Members of Congress, including Democratic Sens. Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, have also expressed concerns about the plan.

Rep. Ken Buck, a Republican from Colorado, said on Twitter Monday that Instagram should completely abolish the program for children.

Facebook executives say that it would be better to have children use a version of the app with stronger safety controls given that they already find ways to skirt the app’s age restriction. Mr. Mosseri on Monday pointed out that other big internet platforms such as YouTube and TikTok have versions designed for under-13s.

The company believes the children’s version “is the right thing to do,” Mr. Mosseri said in a release.

“Critics of ‘Instagram Kids’ will see this as an acknowledgment that the project is a bad idea. That’s not the case,” he said.

Mr. Mosseri and Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg have said that social media can help children form connections.

Instagram also plans to offer more parental controls to families with older children, Mr. Mosseri said. The controls would be optional and would allow parents to monitor and shape their teenagers’ experience with the platform.

“Parents of kids of all ages are looking for more ways to supervise and control their kids’ experiences online,” Mr. Mosseri said. The controls could give parents the ability to approve whom their teenage children can message and follow, he added.

The Journal’s article about Facebook’s internal research on Instagram, which was published on Sept. 14, was part of a series showing that Facebook knows that its platforms are riddled with a variety of flaws that cause harm. In addition to the Instagram research, the Facebook Files articles, based on a review of internal Facebook documents and interviews with current and former employees, also reported on problems with Facebook’s content-moderation policy for high-profile accounts, its efforts to tame angry content, and its programs to bar criminals such as human traffickers and drug cartels.

Leaders of the Senate Commerce Committee’s consumer-protection subcommittee said last week they would hold a hearing this Thursday to question a senior Facebook executive about its platforms’ effects on mental health.

Facebook’s head of research, Pratiti Raychoudhury, said in a blog post Sunday, 12 days after the Journal’s article ran, that the Journal’s reporting mischaracterized the company’s findings about Instagram and teens. Ms. Raychoudhury said that body image was the only area, out of a dozen, where the company found teen girls who reported struggling with the issue said Instagram made it worse. Facebook’s research shows that many teens “feel that using Instagram helps them when they are struggling with the kinds of hard moments and issues teenagers have always faced,” she said.

A Journal spokesman said: “We stand behind The Facebook Files. None of the company’s defenses have cited a single factual error—and in keeping with our standards, we gave Facebook ample time and space to comment before publication.”

The Journal’s article noted that for most teenagers, Instagram’s effects can be manageable and at times positive, but highlighted those areas where the company’s own researchers flagged the negative effects on at-risk users.

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