Instagram (mundissima via Shutterstock)

HARTFORD, CT – Connecticut Attorney General William Tong joined a coalition of 44 attorneys general to pressure Facebook to abandon plans for a version of Instagram for children under the age of 13.  

The coalition of members of the National Association of Attorneys General sent a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg this week expressing their concerns about the harmful effects of social media on the physical, emotional and mental well-being of children. 

“At the end of the day, we can’t even trust Facebook and Instagram to keep platforms for adults safe from misinformation, disinformation, fraud and scamming.” Tong said. “I have very little confidence that they can protect children.” 

In its letter, the coalition took on the social media giant’s intentions head-on. 

“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 coalition stated. “In short, an Instagram platform for young children is harmful for myriad reasons.” 

Experts on children’s social-emotional learning call it an idea whose timing couldn’t be worse, especially in the wake of a pandemic that forced children of all ages online.

Michelle Cunningham, executive director of Connecticut Afterschool Network and committee member of Social Emotional Learning Alliance, said that although social media is a tool, it should not be introduced at younger ages.

“It’s hard enough for adults to maneuver the intricacies of online relations and connections with other people,” Cunningham said. “When you haven’t learned all the social and emotional skills that you need to operate in person yet, you really are not ready to transfer that to a virtual sphere.”    

Tong said social media targeted to the very young only increases the risk of cyberbullying, online predators, advertising, scamming, inappropriate content and the ability to give out private information. Tong said he also doesn’t trust Facebook to comply with privacy laws such as the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.

“I know already that the risks are great on traditional platforms like Facebook and Instagram, and then to create one that specifically targets kids is especially dangerous,”  Tong said Wednesday.

Richard Hanley, associate professor of journalism at Quinnipiac University, said there’s an overall lack of trust in Facebook, which owns Instagram, to attract the appropriate audience. 

“If it’s labeled for kids to use it, no kid is going to use it,” Hanley said. “Facebook for kids will attract enough people and the people it may attract may not be kids. It might be people looking to infiltrate the feed with all sorts of unhealthy things for kids that could be a range of pathologies that you can only imagine a social platform can attract.”  

Hanley said using algorithms to attract a young audience could be dangerous. 

“Any platform that uses algorithms to generate content, in terms of content that people don’t necessarily seek, poses a great risk,” Hanley said. “Facebook itself knows that it has to hire thousands of humans to monitor content that its algorithms will show to people who may not be mature enough to see it or may not be appropriate for them to see. It’s just the nature of technology.”

Facebook says it just started “exploring a version of Instagram for kids,” and is committed to not show ads “in any Instagram experience we develop for people under the age of 13.” 

Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but it told CNBC: “We agree that any experience we develop must prioritize their safety and privacy, and we will consult with experts in child development, child safety and mental health, and privacy advocates to inform it. We also look forward to working with legislators and regulators, including the nation’s attorneys general.”

Instagram currently limits accounts to those age 13 and above, but that rule is easily circumvented. The company has provided some  updates and features to address the protection of young individuals. However, many parents remain skeptical of the value of the application for their kids.

Charity Kuchyt, a parent in the Wallingford area, said she will not be allowing her child to use a new Instagram platform due to its hold on childrens’ “interpersonal skills and mental health.” 

“No matter what Instagram puts in place, there will always be ‘influencer’ types and algorithms that the average user cannot control,” Kuchyt said. “Plus, social media is addictive for adults. How can we expect a child to have an easier time managing it?” 

Instagram says it’s committed to safety and privacy for its users. 

“We believe that everyone should have a safe and supportive experience on Instagram,” Instagram stated on their page. “These updates are a part of our ongoing efforts to protect young people, and our specialist teams will continue to invest in new interventions that further limit inappropriate interactions between adults and teens.” 

Tong says if they don’t, attorneys general will be watching. 

“We have all of our tools, our legal tools at our disposal,” Tong said. “We are prepared to take action to protect children and families in Connecticut and across the country.”