Facebook’s focus to acquire preteens goes beyond Instagram Kids, WSJ reports

According to a new Wall Street Journal report, Facebook’s interest in understanding and ultimately acquiring preteens extends far beyond Messenger Kids or the now-paused Instagram Kids plans, including working with children as young as four in hopes of better designing future products.

Facebook has come under increasing criticism in recent days for its influence on young users and its efforts to produce products for them, following the Wall Street Journal’s report, which was drawn from Facebook’s internal documents. 

The WSJ reported that Facebook has repeatedly found that Instagram causes anxiety and depression in young people, and negatively affects body image, especially in young girls. 

Following the reports and the increasing fire from lawmakers and users, head of Instagram Adam Mosseri said that the company is pausing its work on Instagram Kids so that the company can listen to concerns and put more effort to demonstrate the value of the children’s version.

Facebook had criticized the WSJ’s reports about the social media giant’s platforms for containing “deliberate mischaracterizations” and not telling the whole picture. 

According to new internal Facebook documents reviewed and published by The Wall Street Journal, the company formed a team to study preteens, set a three-year goal to create more products for them, and prepared strategy papers on the long-term business opportunities presented by these potential users.

The company’s work is primarily motivated by the success of apps like TikTok and Snapchat in attracting younger users. Another reason Facebook wants to focus on preteens, according to documents reviewed by the WSJ, is that the number of teens who use the platform every day has dropped 19% in the last two years and could drop another 45% by 2023.

According to an internal document from earlier this year, over the past five years, Facebook is working on designing products that would appeal to preteens. 

The WSJ says that the documents show that in more than a dozen studies over the period, Facebook tried to understand which products might resonate with kids and “tweens” (10 to 12 years old), how these teens view competitors’ apps, and what worries their parents.

“With the ubiquity of tablets and phones, kids are getting on the internet as young as six years old. We can’t ignore this and we have a responsibility to figure it out,” said a 2018 document labeled confidential. “Imagine a Facebook experience designed for youth.”

According to a slide included in the report, Facebook broke things down into six age brackets to introduce a more holistic approach to childhood: adults, late teens ages 16 to maturity, teens ages 13 to 15, tweens ages 10 to 12, children ages 5 to 9 and young kids ages zero to four. 

A Facebook spokesman said that the age brackets are a taxonomy used by the “Age Appropriate Design Code” and “does not reflect its approach to building an app”. 

“If kids are under 13, they’re not allowed on Instagram and they should not be using our service,” said Adam Mosseri in a written statement for this article. “It’s not new and it’s not a secret that social-media companies try to understand how teens and preteens use technology. Like all technology companies, of course, we want to appeal to the next generation, but that’s entirely different from the false assertion that we knowingly attempt to recruit people who aren’t old enough to use our apps.”

The report also said Facebook is relying on Instagram to recruit young users in the hope that they’ll age into the company’s eponymous platform over time. A November 2020 presentation cited an eventual goal of pitching Facebook as the “Life Coach for Adulting.”

Facebook said the company had removed more than 600,000 accounts in the past three months for violating its rules on age limits.

Facebook plans to argue that it has more positive impacts at Thursday’s US Senate hearing, according to the company’s prepared testimony seen by Reuters. Reuters reports that Antigone Davis, global head of safety at Facebook, will detail the company’s previously announced efforts to better protect children and teens online, including defaulting users under the age of 16 to private accounts when they join Instagram, according to the testimony.

Written by Maya Robertson

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