Instagram for kids? Iowa attorney general urges Facebook to abandon app development

Attorneys general, including in Iowa, are asking Facebook to reconsider launching an Instagram app for kids. (Creative Commons illustration by mohamed hassan via Pxhere)

Attorneys general from 44 states, including Iowa, say an Instagram app for children could lead to cyberbullying, mental distress and body-image issues.

The bipartisan group of attorneys general sent a letter Monday to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, urging him to abandon development of a kid-friendly Instagram platform. Zuckerberg announced in March that the company intended to create a version of the popular social media platform for children under 13 years old.

“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,” the letter from the attorneys general reads. Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller signed on the plea.

Zuckerberg in March told a congressional panel that the app was still in an early stage of development. He acknowledged that some kids already lie about their age to join Instagram, which boasts over 1 billion users. 

“I think helping people stay connected with friends and learn about different content online is broadly positive,” Zuckerberg said in congressional testimony. “There were clearly issues that need to be thought through and worked out, including how parents can control the experience of kids, especially kids under the age of 13.”

Facebook in 2017 launched Messenger Kids, a version of Facebook Messenger for children 6-12. The app allows parents to manage their child’s contact list and review their chats and shared images. Messenger Kids is not a social media platform in the same way that Instagram is — it functions as an alternative to texting or video-chatting with specific other individuals.

But the attorneys general noted that Facebook did not have a spotless record with its app guardrails. The Messenger Kids app briefly allowed children to add unapproved strangers into group chats, and the Instagram algorithm mistakenly targeted dieting content to users with eating disorders. 

“… Facebook has a record of failing to protect the safety and privacy of children on its platform, despite claims that its products have strict privacy concerns,” the letter reads. 

Facebook is not the only company pursuing child-specific apps and social media platforms. YouTube, for example, launched YouTube Kids in 2015. Content is filtered into different age-appropriate groups, and parents can set time limits and view their child’s viewing history. There are also several smaller companies that run child-specific social networks and messaging apps.

“There is clearly a large number of people under the age of 13 who would want to use a service like Instagram,” Zuckerberg said in the March hearing.