Facebook took a page out of marketing genius and book packager Edward Stratemeyer’s book and tried to use it. Back at the turn of the century and up until his untimely death in 1930, Edward was the inventive creator of many series for middle-grade readers, including the Bobbsey Twins, Hardy Boys, and The Nancy Drew Mystery Stories. Edward realized that if he released several volumes at once, called a ‘breeder set’, that he would “hook” readers from the beginning of the series. Once a reader was caught up in the stories, they couldn’t wait for the next volumes to be released.
Facebook Inc., which owns Instagram, was attempting to do the same with preteens. Instagram Kids would introduce children under the age of 13 to the social media platform. Although Instagram Kids would be ad-free and require parental permission to sign up, the reality is Facebook, through its Instagram outlet, is trying to “breed” followers and future marketing opportunities.
Facebook announced plans for the app in May of this year. No sooner did word get out than the fight against the effort to capitalize on young children began. Attorney Generals from 44 states and territories urged the company to reconsider.
The headlines screamed probably as much as parents, educators, and anyone involved in childhood welfare did since the announcement of the attempt to reach out to this new “market.” Kids.
This week the headlines reflected the pushback to this initiative.
“Facebook hits pause on Instagram app amid growing scrutiny“- The Washington Post
“Facebook’s Effort to Attract Preteens Goes Beyond Instagram Kids, Documents Show“-Wall Street Journal
“Facebook is Delaying ‘Instagram Kids’ Amid Criticism“-The New York Times
According to the Wall Street Journal, Instagram chief Adam Mosseri offered this during an interview on NBC’s “Today” show; “I still firmly believe that it’s a good thing to build a version of Instagram that’s safe for tweens, but we want to take the time to talk to parents and researchers and safety experts and get to more consensus about how to move forward.”
The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) has been presenting an investigative series, The Facebook Files, with an in-depth exploration of the impact of Facebook and Instagram on users. On September 14, the series presented an article with the title, “Facebook knows Instagram is Toxic for Teen Girls, Company Documents Show.”
Facebook Internal Research
To the credit of Facebook Inc., the company has conducted studies for the last three years on the impact of their platforms on the millions of teens who frequent the sites. The Facebook team’s research revealed that Instagram is harmful to a huge portion of teenage users. The investigative reporters unveiled a slide presentation, obtained from a whistleblower, from March 2020 which was posted on Facebook’s internal message board. “Thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse,” the researchers said. “Comparisons on Instagram can change how young women view and describe themselves.”
Another slide the WSJ investigative journalists discovered from 2019 stated, “We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls.” Another slide offered, “Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression.”
But, despite the fact that Facebook Inc.’s own research was identifying these concerns, the company was continuing to move forward toward creating Instagram Kids for tweens.
“Instagram is well-positioned to resonate and win with young people,” stated one of the slides posted internally at Facebook Inc. Another presentation slide said: “There is a path to growth if Instagram can continue their trajectory.”
“Shake with fear”
Marcia Rutherford, Central Regional Coordinator for the Ohio Department of Education, shared, “While I love technology and teaching with technology, I can tell you that kids using Instagram should make everyone shake with fear. While serving as a principal of middle schoolers, who were kind and loving and thoughtful and smart, I suspended and expelled more children- 6th, 7th, and 8th because of content posted on Instagram than for any other reason. Fistfights were a far second. The anonymity allows children to forget their rules and ways they were raised and bully, malign and shame others as well as remove inhibitions allowing them to send and forward photos that should never be shared. So much good can come from online formats, but the dark underbelly is sickening.”
Senate Committee Hearing
On September 30, U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal, Chair of the Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security convened a hearing titled “Protecting Kids Online: Facebook, Instagram, and Mental Health Harms.” Representing Facebook Inc was Antigone Davis, Director, Global Head of Safety.
Senator Blumenthal opened the hearing off by stating, “We are here today because Facebook, once again, is incapable of holding themselves accountable. We now have deep insight into Facebook’s efforts to recruit and exploit teens. Facebook researchers have been ringing the alarm for years. The question that haunts me is, how can we, or any parent, trust Facebook.”
Senator Blumenthal went on to offer a quote from Facebook regarding teens’ usage of Instagram and Facebook “They have an addict’s narrative about their use-it can make them feel good, feel bad. They wish they could spend less time caring about it, but they can’t stop themselves.”
Ms. Davis, of Facebook, faced tough questions from the Senate committee. All in all, the hearing did not go well for Facebook, and Ms. Davis didn’t directly address many of the questions. As an example, in response to Mr. Blumenthal’s comments about the findings of the investigative report, Ms. Davis replied, “What’s lost in this report, is that more teen girls find Instagram helpful than not.”
The outcomes from the hearing included a commitment from lawmakers that the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 would be updated. The committee is also hoping that Facebook will self-govern in taking measures to address the problems with teenagers using their social media platforms.
Unfortunately, based on Ms. Davis’ toeing the line that the company’s internal research was misinterpreted, the committees’ hope may be just that. Hope.
If Facebook Inc would only take a page from Edward Stratemeyer’s book and figure out a way to breed young readers versus young followers…