US attorneys general urge Facebook to drop Instagram for children proposal

Facebook in March confirmed a report by Buzzfeed News, saying it is ‘exploring a parent-controlled experience’ on Instagram.

Facebook, Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp social media app icons on a smartphone
Facebook, Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp social media app icons on a smartphone

A bipartisan group of 44 US attorneys general has written to Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg urging him to drop company plans for a version of Instagram for children under the age of 13.

The attorneys general in the letter said they are concerned about social media’s effects on the physical and emotional wellbeing of children, the potential for increased cyberbullying, possible vulnerability to online predators, and what they called Facebook’s “chequered record” in protecting children on its platforms.

“It appears that Facebook is not responding to a need, but instead creating one, as this platform appeals primarily to children who otherwise do not or would not have an Instagram account,” said the letter, signed by the attorneys general of 40 states, the District of Columbia and three US territories.

Children under 13 are technically not allowed to use the Instagram app in its current form due to federal privacy regulations.

But Facebook in March confirmed a report by Buzzfeed News, saying it is “exploring a parent-controlled experience” on Instagram.

“It’s shameful that Facebook is ignoring the very real threat that social media poses to the safety and wellbeing of young children in an attempt to profit off of a vulnerable segment of our population,” Massachusetts attorney general Maura Healey said in a statement.

Facebook in a statement on Monday said it is simply “exploring” Instagram for children and would make every effort to protect them and would not show advertising on such a platform.

“We agree that any experience we develop must prioritise their safety and privacy, and we will consult with experts in child development, child safety and mental health, and privacy advocates to inform it,” the company said.

“We also look forward to working with legislators and regulators, including the nation’s attorneys general.”

Facebook also pointed out that it is a founding sponsor of the Digital Wellness Lab at Boston Children’s Hospital, launched in March to study the effects of digital technology on children’s “brains, bodies and behaviours”.

The effort of the attorneys general is backed by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.

“Facebook faces a critical choice: will they plough ahead with their ill-conceived plan to ensnare young children, or will they listen to the growing chorus of parents, experts, advocates, lawmakers and regulators who are telling them that an Instagram kids’ site will undermine young children’s healthy development and right to privacy?” executive director Josh Golin said in a statement.

Facebook faced similar criticism in 2017 when it launched the Messenger Kids app, touted as a way for children to chat with family members and friends approved by parents.

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