In a blog post announcing his intention to temporarily halt development of a new app aimed at children, Instagram manager Adam Mosseri wrote: parents only where we are today.
It’s rare that I find common ground with the Instagram manager, but he’s right on this point. Children and tweens need access to technology that meets their unique needs.
He is completely wrong about the solution.
Instagram Kids is a terrible idea, and luckily plans for the pint version of the app have been put on hold. This development follows another controversy – this one over Instagram’s effects on youth mental health. Instagram’s internal research suggests the platform can be a toxic place for teens.
It’s possible for businesses to create platforms that better support parents, kids, and tweens, but it can’t be done by going fast and breaking things.
As the father and founder of a kids’ tech company, I have always believed that platforms based on social validation, comparison, and FOMO were not appropriate for young users. And while Facebook has claimed in public that their research suggests a net positive effect on mental health, behind closed doors they have evidence that this may not be the case.
Despite all of this, I know there is healthy technology out there for kids. It’s possible for businesses to create platforms that better support parents, kids, and tweens, but it can’t be done by going fast and breaking things.
Children grow up connected
Technology is an integral part of our lives and the lives of our children. According to Common Sense Media’s 2020 Census of Media Use, children ages 0 to 8 have almost two and a half hours of screen time per day.
And it was before COVID-19 has closed schools and made play dates impossible. Kids have turned to screens for distance learning, entertainment, and socializing with friends and family, and many parents will tell you that this increase in screen time is a serious source of anxiety.
I believe many parents inherently see the value of technology, especially when it has been a lifeline in keeping us connected during a pandemic. But there is ambivalence here as there is a serious shortage of safe, high-quality environments for children online. As a result, families are turning to platforms that were never designed to meet the needs of children, often at the expense of their peace of mind.
Modernizing adult platforms is not the solution
When you think of popular apps for kids, what comes to your mind? Facebook Messenger Kids? YouTube Kids? These platforms all have something in common: They are repackaged versions of adult apps and they have seen scandals related to security and privacy. This is because adult apps just don’t adapt well to kids. There are several reasons for this.
First, many adult platforms are designed to be sticky. This is reflected in features like endless streams, autoplay content, and arbitrary “streaks”.
These apps also have a way of using our own psychology against us to make us scroll. They exploit our need to belong by quantifying social validation. Because of the number of followers, like buttons, comments, and shares, we can see exactly how popular we are – and we can compare our metrics to others. Many adults can find these features anxiety-inducing, and I don’t think they belong to the platforms designed for young users whose brains are still developing. They appear again and again in child-friendly applications because they are at the heart of these products.
Second, many technology platforms are widely open networks. It is not the one-sided media that we grew up with. Many social and gaming platforms encourage users to make friends and followers and to exchange messages and comments, which can pose serious safety risks to inexperienced young internet users.
A recent report from Thorn found that dozens of children use adult platforms before the age of 13, and a surprising majority of them face “abuse, harassment or sexual solicitation by adults ”.
When companies try to modernize platforms for children that eliminate the danger of strangers, they have had varying success. Facebook Messenger Kids sadly included a design flaw that allowed kids to connect and chat with strangers. This is because it’s really hard to take an open network and work backwards to lock it down. When it comes to security, you really have to start from scratch.
Finally, modernized platforms rarely appeal to children in the same way as their adult counterparts. Ask Any Parent: Kids Love YouTube. Not so much with YouTube Kids. Children are always in a hurry to grow up. They want to feel empowered, and the mini-versions of adult apps do the opposite. It’s the technical version of the kids table, so getting buy-in from younger users can be difficult.
Parental controls can only get you so far
With all the dangers out there for kids online, you might think parental controls are the obvious answer. This is clearly what Facebook is thinking with its plans for Instagram Kids. But if you ask me, no parental controls in the world will prevent children from comparing themselves to others. Again, this is inherent to the platform.
Parental controls won’t stop kids from finding creative workarounds, either. Kids are resourceful when it comes to getting around screen time limits. They are often just tiny, motivated hackers. With all of that in mind, the best thing parents can do is get involved, really get involved in their children’s digital lives.
Build a foundation with parental participation and co-play
If you’ve ever googled for “screen time recommendations,” you already know that digital parenting experts rarely agree on anything. But one thing we hear all the time is that parents need to be involved in their children’s digital lives.
We need to explore and play together. It gives us the ability to model appropriate behaviors for kids and educate them about the big and bad world online. It’s also a great way to spend quality time with your children. Ask them what games they like. Ask them to teach you how they work. Devote one evening a week to enjoying screen time together.
When tech companies sell parental controls as the ultimate answer for kids’ apps, they’re doing us a disservice. Rules and restrictions are obviously important, but what we really need are opportunities to use technology with our children. We need apps that the whole family can enjoy together, not just where parents can flip a switch, set a limit, and go.
We need to think beyond parental controls if we are to help children develop healthy relationships with technology. We need to talk to them about social validation. We need to make sure they understand their digital footprints. And we need to help them understand what drives Big Tech companies.
A junior version of Instagram won’t make the internet a better place for kids or parents. This will only hook them young – something Facebook is clearly motivated to do.
Fortunately, plans for the new platform have been put on hold, but I sincerely hope that they abandon it altogether. Facebook has a questionable track record, and it’s probably not the right company to develop products for kids. And Instagram is definitely the wrong model.