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Instagram delays launch of app for kids

On my tech column with CBC Ottawa Morning, Dr. Tracy Valliancourt and I explain the challenges with Instagram Kids and the latest research from Facebook about its impact on teens.

Beyond Mental Health

One of the challenges that we didn’t have time to address in the segment was the issue of privacy and tracking. Of course these pale in comparison to children’s mental health but they are still important.

Using Messenger Kids as a reference, we can get a reasonable idea of what Instagram is trying achieve with Instagram Kids.

While I agree with Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, that kids need tools to communicate and engage online. I firmly disagree that Facebook is the company that should be providing those tools.

COPPA (the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act), is often misinterpreted to mean that kids can’t be tracked online. That’s not the case. The act requires companies to follow a different set of rules for data collection and tracking when children under 13 are involved.

The Kids efforts from Facebook allow them to segment this part of their user base—and let’s be honest, kids are on Instagram today—and fulfill their obligations under COPPA.

The primary method for that is through parental consent.

Because a parent with a Facebook account must set up the Kids account. They click through the separate privacy policy and accept it’s terms.

Full credit to Facebook, this policy is more readable than the standard ones (privacy and data) but it’s still hard to determine exactly what Facebook is allowed to do.

Reading through it, it appears that by agreeing the parent is providing consent to some level of tracking their child and then sharing that information within the Facebook network of partners.

Just because the children aren’t being shown ads, doesn’t mean their data isn’t feeding the larger machine.

Is the trade off worth it? That entirely depends on you and appetite for risk.

My take is always the same, no choice is flat out wrong if it’s made explicitly. The problem here is that I don’t believe that most parents understand what is possible under the policy and what they are agreeing to.

Content Moderation

In addition to data collection and tracking, the content on Instagram Kids will be problematic. Inevitably, Facebook will take an automated approach, just like other technology companies.

It’s just not possible to monitor all of this content “by hand.” The problem is those content moderation algorithms are easily bypassed. That’s problematic for adults and potentially catastrophic for children.

This is an issue that needs to be addressed before Facebook moves forward with this initiative. Will it be? Probably not.

What’s Next?

Despite the uproar, Instagram will eventually release Instagram Kids. Capturing the attention of children in hopes they become part of your target audience when they are old isn’t new.

This is one of the reasons that Google tries to support schools across the world. Same with Apple and Microsoft.

Nurturing an audience that’s predisposed to choose your product when the time comes is a smart business strategy.

Is it ethical or something we want in our society? As I’ve said before, I won’t judge the decision if it’s made explicitly with eyes wide open. Is that the case here? Probably not.

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