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Facebook's planned kid-friendly Instagram app not all sunshine and rainbows

Long considered a hip millennial magnet, Facebook Inc.-owned Instagram LLC now has its sights set on an even younger demographic.

Facebook recently confirmed it is in the early stages of developing an Instagram-like platform for children under 13 that would be free of targeted advertising and more closely monitored for various types of harmful content. Instagram's policies currently prevent anyone under 13 from creating an account unless that account is monitored by a parent. Facebook in 2017 launched a similar offering called Messenger Kids that is considered a safer alternative to the regular Facebook Messenger platform. According to the most recently reported data, Messenger Kids counts roughly 7 million users.

The idea of a kid-friendly Instagram drew skepticism from many analysts and industry experts, who said the app may have a hard time winning over both parents and younger users.

SNL Image
Facebook, hardly new to kid-friendly platforms, launched Messenger Kids in 2017. It aims to be a safer alternative to the regular Facebook Messenger platform.
Source: Facebook Inc.

"I'm sure that Facebook will spin this as ... one of the ways of them addressing their underage users on the main Instagram platform. But I don't think that's what this is really about," said Josh Golin, executive director at Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, a nonprofit aimed at limiting the impact of commercial culture on children.

Pointing to Instagram's relatively soft age verification measures, Golin said there are likely many children under the age of 13 who are already on the regular platform, which could make it difficult for Facebook to transition them to a younger site.

"They're likely to view Instagram Kids as babyish and not a place where they're going to want to spend time," Golin said.

Instagram in late 2019 began requiring users to enter their date of birth when signing up for a new account on the platform, but the new age requirement did not apply to Instagram's pre-existing members. The company on its website says that anyone younger than 13 must clearly state in their account bio that the account is overseen by a parent or manager.

In an email to S&P Global Market Intelligence, Facebook declined to provide a timeframe for launching its kid-focused Instagram platform but said it expects the development and consultation process "to take a number of months."

Company CEO Mark Zuckerberg said during a March congressional hearing that Facebook is just starting to consider how an Instagram app for kids would work, including determining how much control parents should have over the experience. Many pediatricians discourage parents from giving a smartphone to a child under 13.

Seth Shafer, an analyst at Kagan, a media research group within S&P Global Market Intelligence, said the surge in competition from services such as video-sharing app TikTok Inc. and Snap Inc. for younger users could have also motivated Facebook to seek out additional ways to boost engagement.

Though Facebook does not disclose its Instagram user figures, data from market and consumer research firm Statista estimates the platform has roughly 1 billion monthly active users, with the majority of those in the United States. By comparison, for the December 2020 period, Facebook's core platform counted 2.80 billion monthly active users, an increase of 12% year over year.

Kagan's Shafer added that rolling out a child-friendly platform comes with its own set of risks, including significant ramp-up costs and requiring extra vigilance against inappropriate content and behavior on the site.

"The upside has to be substantial," Shafer said in an email.

U.S. lawmakers from both political parties have already raised concerns about Facebook's new venture.

For instance, a group of four Democratic lawmakers on April 5 sent a letter to Zuckerberg asking questions such as how much interaction users on the children's platform will have with those on the main platform and what kind of data Instagram will collect on the under-13 site.

The lawmakers include Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass.; Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.; Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla.; and Rep. Lori Trahan, D-Mass.

It is not just democrats voicing opposition, however.

Republican congressman Gus Bilirakis of Florida grilled Zuckerberg about the planned offering at the March congressional hearing, asking: "Given the free services, how exactly will you be making money? Or, are you trying to monetize our children, too, and get them addicted early?"

Zuckerberg merely said the company is "early in our thinking" about the app.