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Why Facebook is holding off on kids’ Instagram

Bowing — perhaps only for a moment — to pressure from lawmakers, critics, the media and child development experts, Facebook said Monday it will “pause” its work on a kids’ version of its photo and video-oriented Instagram app. But what’s not yet clear is just how seriously Facebook is taking the concerns of experts and parents. Its decision to merely pause the project suggests it still plans to expose a much younger audience to Instagram, its well-documented harms and possibly the user profiling that feeds Facebook’s targeted ad machine. That ad machine, of course, has made the company one of the most profitable on the planet. Why is Facebook doing this now? The company’s move follows an explosive mid-September report by The Wall Street Journal that found Facebook knew from its own research that Instagram was harming some teens, especially girls, leading to mental health and body image problems and in some cases eating disorders and suicidal thoughts. In public, however, Facebook has consistently played down the app’s negative side and until now has barreled ahead with the kids’ version despite alarms from experts, lawmakers and its own research. It has also relentlessly criticized the Journal article as cherry-picking from Facebook’s research, though it did not dispute the facts. That story, however, was based on internal research leaked by a whistleblower at the company. It’s likely not a coincidence that on Thursday, a panel of the Senate Commerce Committee will hold a hearing examining the “toxic effects” of Facebook and Instagram on young people. It’s the latest of several hearings to look at whether Big Tech companies are hiding what they know about the harms their products cause. So is Insta for Kids cancelled? Facebook has very specifically not said that it will abandon the project. Instead, Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, said in a blog post Monday that the company will use its pause time “to work with parents, experts and policymakers to demonstrate the value and need for this product.” Translation: Expect Facebook to sharpen its message on the “benefits” of Instagram for Kids in hopes that the furor will die down. Consider that Facebook had already said it was working with parents, experts and policymakers back in July when it introduced safety measures for teens on its main Instagram platform. In fact, the company has been “working with” experts and other advisors for another product aimed at children — its Messenger Kids app that launched in late 2017. “Critics of Instagram Kids’ will see this as an acknowledgement that the project is a bad idea,” Mosseri wrote. “That’s not the case.” Who are the experts working with Facebook? Four years ago, Facebook said it gathered a group of experts in the fields of online safety, child development and children’s media to “share their expertise, research and guidance.” The group it calls Youth Advisors include some well-known and some lesser-known nonprofit groups, including the Family Online Safety Institute, Digital Wellness Lab, MediaSmarts, Project Rockit and the Cyberbullying Research Center. All of these groups receive some form of funding from Facebook, according to their websites. Meanwhile, some of the best-known children’s online advocacy groups — and Facebook’s biggest critics on this matter — such as Common Sense Media and Fairplay (formerly known as the Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood) are notably absent.

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