Why I feel conflicted about 'Kidstagram'

JustSociale CEO Sarah Liberty
By JustSociale CEO Sarah Liberty | 23 March 2021
Sarah Liberty

When I read the news that Facebook is intending to build a new version of Instagram - called Kidstagram - that will be designed for use by children under the age of 13, I have to admit my stomach churned.

Don’t get me wrong. At JustSociale, we believe everyone should be able to use the internet and social media freely, safely and equally, and it is no secret that many young people use the popular photo-sharing app already, despite Instagram's policy which forbids children under the age of 13 from using it.

Instagram has clearly identified young people as an important growth segment, and has stated that it intends to build a youth app in order to ensure this platform provides, as reported, "a version of Instagram that allows people under the age of 13 to safely use Instagram for the first time".

Whilst I applaud Instagram for attempting to address the fact that young people face abuse, bullying and predation on its site, I can’t help but wonder about both the mental and physical impacts that increased social media use may have on them.

The World Health Organisation guidelines for the amount of screen time does not recommend sedentary screen time for children 1-2 years of age, whilst for children aged 2 years, sedentary screen time should be no more than 1 hour, and for children 3-4 years of age sedentary screen time should be no more than 1 hour. Whilst I do not envision that Kidstagram will be targeting children this young, it's clear that young people and early teens should be encouraged to limit their screen time.

Given the addictive nature of social media and the fact that many school children already use computers, tablets and smartphones in their classrooms and at home - I should know, because my mother is a primary school teacher - this concerns me.

Many adults already spend an average of 11 hours a day looking at their screens. And, there is research to suggest that staring at a screen for extended periods of time can deplete our energy, which can then impact our mental wellness. This is also echoed with children and young people, with one study stating that "There is evidence that higher levels of screentime is associated with a variety of health harms...with evidence strongest for adiposity, unhealthy diet, depressive symptoms and quality of life". The bottom line is, kids plus too much screen time can equal serious health implications.

This is why we at JustSociale encourage people of all ages to set aside time to do other activities – such as socialising with friends, enjoying a creative pursuit, reading, exercising, getting the right amount of sleep, eating well and ‘unplugging’ from devices on a regular basis. We believe the goal is finding balance between screen-based and non-screen activities.

Instagram chief Adam Mosseri has admitted it does not yet have a clear strategy for its kids version, which leaves me with some lingering questions:

● How will the Kidstagram platform ensure that young people’s online human rights are protected, and ensure that users treat each other with dignity and respect - preventing the bullying that is already so rampant amongst teens from occurring between its kiddy users?
● How will Instagram educate its young users about the UNESCO concept of good digital citizenship, promoted by the NSW Department of Education, which JustSociale firmly endorses, and the fact that what gets posted online stays there forever?
● How will Instagram ensure that predators do not access the app and befriend younger users? The very fact that Instagram is launching a new version of its app to address this matter indicates how serious an issue this is, along with instances of bullying and abuse.
● How will Instagram ensure that children do not encounter health risks related to too much social media use and screen time - including social media addiction, which Harvard researchers and many others have acknowledged is a widespread concern?

As an online human rights advocate, the Kidstagram announcement has left me feeling conflicted. Yes, it may be beneficial to have a separate app for children if the safety issues raised are adequately dealt with. However, with such lack of clarity around how this new development will achieve this, my gut tells me that whilst engaging with others on social media is an important and usually joyful way to connect in today’s era, children may be better encouraged to play, read books, ride swings, play sports and find other hobbies, rather than jump on apps too soon.

My fondest memories of growing up are most certainly of climbing trees, building sandcastles, playing handball and learning jazz ballet, rather than checking my phone or logging onto my family's computer to play Pac-Man.

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