There are many things children under 13 need; the basics like food, shelter and a feeling of safety, education, love, open spaces like parks to run around and play in, having fun and being silly until they’re in tears from laughing so much. One thing that children very probably don’t need? A kids’ version of Instagram.
In March, an internal announcement at Facebook was published by Buzzfeed and it stated the company’s plans to build a version of Instagram for under 13s. Like most social platforms, Instagram currently only allows people aged 13 and over to create an account. Yet despite this, according to a 2017 study by regulator Ofcom, half of children aged 11 and 12 have a social media profile.
This, apparently, is one of the reasons Facebook are developing Instagram for Kids. "As every parent knows, kids are already online. We want to improve this situation by delivering experiences that give parents visibility and control over what their kids are doing," a Facebook spokesperson said this week in a statement to CNN Business. "We are developing these experiences in consultation with experts in child development, child safety and mental health, and privacy advocates. We also look forward to working with legislators and regulators, including the nation's attorneys general. In addition, we commit today to not showing ads in any Instagram experience we develop for people under the age of 13."
Which might all sound lovely and reassuring to you, but as a parent of a ten-year-old who isn’t on social media, the thought of her having an Instagram account makes my blood run cold. The extra screen time, the exposure to manipulated and filtered images, the potential for online bullying and friendship drama, the ability to post images of herself and her friends (or of anything!) on a public site all fill me with fear and dread.
But I’m not alone in my worries about social media for kids. This week, across the pond in America, 44 attorneys general signed a letter addressed to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg urging him to scrap the plans. "Use of social media can be detrimental to the health and well-being of children, who are not equipped to navigate the challenges of having a social media account," said the letter. And they’re right.
I should point out here that I’m not some screen-free perfect parent type. Not only do I post on my own Instagram account most days, but my kids love a screen too. My toddlers have access to tablets which they jab at with their sticky hands until Peppa Pig appears on the screen. My ten-year-old plays Roblox, Minecraft and watches Norris Nuts videos on YouTube. But for me, there’s a line. A very clear line between balanced screen time and kids being swallowed up whole into the abyss of social media.
We know from research that social media can have a negative effect on young people. A 2019 study by UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health showed a strong link between social media use and mental health and wellbeing. The research stated that the negative impact includes disrupted sleep, cyber bullying and lack of exercise because social media has displaced other activities. Should we really be exposing children to that? It’s not rocket science that if kids get sucked into using social media, with its notifications, messaging and likes, they’ll spend less time running around outside, playing football in the garden and making up dance routines to Little Mix songs.
And as much as we like to think our little cherubs wouldn’t hurt a fly, around one in five children aged 10-15 in England and Wales was the victim of online bullying in 2020 according to the Office for National Statistics. We can probably all imagine the nasty, hurtful messages that are being sent direct to young people’s mobile phones by their peers. My ten-year-old is already talking about how great it will be when she is finally allowed to have her own mobile phone, and has asked if she can get WhatsApp so she can message groups of her friends. Not on your nelly, I tell her!
But it’s not just cyber bullying and activity displacement that are a concern – the notifications and likes are something to be wary of too. A Harvard study on social media showed that Instagram is designed to make us form a habit of checking the app and to give us dopamine hits by delivering likes in big bursts. Are we seriously OK with our kids developing an addiction to social media?
In her book Body Happy Kids (Vermilion, £14.99), campaigner and mum of two girls, Molly Forbes talks about the link between teenagers using social media, with its filters and airbrushing, and having a negative body image. “There is no doubt that being constantly exposed to these types of images can wreak havoc on the way we view ourselves,” says Molly. “Teens are no longer just comparing themselves to the airbrushed images of celebrities in magazines, they are now comparing themselves to their best mate’s edited selfies too. Sure, Kim Kardashian has a whole glam squad at her disposal but if the person you're comparing yourself to has a life very like yours, it might be harder to justify why you can't look as polished as they do.”
Of course, there are positives to social media – it can offer us connection to people, and support when we need it. It can provide a community and it’s a platform that’s often used by activists who want to do good in the world. I personally use social media to talk about motherhood in the hope it makes another mum’s day just a little better or makes them feel like they’re not alone in their experience.
But for me, weighing up the pros and cons, it’s an easy one – if Instagram launches a kids’ version, my kids won’t be using it. And hey, Mark Zuckerburg, here’s an idea; if you’re genuinely concerned about the number of kids using social media before they should be, how about you plough the money you’re spending developing Instagram Kids into educating parents on the negative impact of social media on kids and arm us with strategies to keep our kids off it until we think it’s a bit safer for them?