Nothing builds consensus like the recognition of a terrible idea. Facebook recently announced its plans to develop an Instagram app designed for kids under the age of 13. You read that right. It’s apparently not enough that Facebook has attracted billions of adult users to its social media platform. Now, the company intends to expand its user base to pre-adolescent children at a time in which parents are already dealing with an unprecedented level of childhood depression associated with social media usage.
Responding to this distinctly bad idea, the attorneys general of 44 states delivered a joint letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg imploring him to abandon any plans for an Instagram app targeted to children. The letter cited the overwhelming research indicating that teenagers’ social media usage is acutely correlated with higher rates of “mental distress, self-injurious behavior and suicidality among youth,” providing:
As recently articulated by dozens of organizations and experts, “Instagram…exploits young people’s fear of missing out and desire for peer approval to encourage children and teens to constantly check their devices and share photos with their followers[,]” and “the platform’s relentless focus on appearance, self-presentation, and branding present challenges to adolescents’ privacy and wellbeing.”
A Facebook spokesperson paid lip service to public concerns of child safety, stating: “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.”
The experts have already spoken. The American Psychological Association surveyed hundreds of thousands of adolescents from 2005 to 2017 and concluded that the major increase in adolescent suicidality was likely because of the demographic’s increased use of social media as a substitute for physical social interaction. Given that social media has already been shown to have destructive effects on teenagers, technology companies should be prohibited from performing a similar experiment on even younger children.
Unfortunately, our nation’s consumer protection laws currently don’t provide an effective deterrent to technology companies that put profits over children’s health. One reason is that the harms associated with social media usage are largely psychological in nature and, therefore, difficult to ascribe to any one cause in particular.
In my view, our tort law should evolve to sanction companies for activities that are empirically demonstrated to be harmful to consumers, even though the harms can be partially attributed to alternative factors. Absent a robust legal remedy, Americans will continue to independently bear the increasing costs of childhood depression while technology companies reap the rewards of our data and attention.