Facebook was once considered a children’s social network, but parents hated the idea

AAround 2017, Facebook gathered a group of executives to work on one top priority: a product for tweens and children. Part of those discussions, which have not been reported before, centered on whether they should create a Facebook-branded social network for kids with features resembling the app’s algorithmic news feed. namesake. Creating something like this seemed essential to me. Even then, Snapchat had gained traction on Facebook, siphoning off younger users. (Facebook and Instagram, technically, are only for ages 13 and older.)

These discussions have reached the top of the food chain, right up to Chris Cox, the product manager. For further study, Facebook convened parent research groups to assess whether they would let their kids use something like this. The reports came to a definitive conclusion: Parents were not at all interested, unwilling to let their children relax in a digital arena as large as Facebook. Facebook put the plans aside, weighed down by new concerns that the child-focused social network would present a greasy target for media criticism.

“The reason they didn’t build it wasn’t because they didn’t want it, but for the sake of how it would be received,” says a person familiar with these discussions.

Research has shown parents would be open to a messaging app for kids. With that in mind, Facebook developed Messenger Kids, a text and video messaging tool with parental access controls. It launched in December 2017 and pointedly omitted the app’s brand name “Facebook” to emphasize that the new product was not a social network at all. (“We created Messenger Kids only after talking to parents and children, as well as experts in online safety and child development for almost a year,” a Facebook spokesperson said. . “They said there was a need for a communication app that allows kids to connect with friends and family while leaving parents in control of the experience.”)

Facebook’s desire to build things for children brought it to Congress on Thursday as senators on the consumer protection subcommittee expressed concerns about whether Facebook could protect children with such a product. The hearing was motivated by a the Wall Street newspaper story last month, which revealed Instagram’s 2020 research into the negative effects of the network on adolescent health. Facebook has since published some of these studies in an attempt to discredit them, criticizing, among other things, their sample sizes and their initial findings. In fact, the research made public largely reinforces the Newspaper, showing, for example, that about 15% of teens said Instagram made anxiety and sleep problems worse and about 20% of all teens in an Instagram study said it made them feel worse in their skin. Despite all the data, Facebook was working on a children’s version of Instagram last month.

Facebook has “tried to deceive the public and us in Congress about what it knows, and it has armed the vulnerabilities of childhood against children themselves,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Democratic chairman of the committee. “It is chosen growth over the mental health and well-being of children, greed over the prevention of child suffering.”

But Thursday’s hearing focused only on Facebook’s recent efforts to create Instagram Kids. As the 2017 conversations leading up to Messenger Kids show, the intention to create a social network for children goes back further than the company has previously recognized and speaks to a deep and long-standing wish. within Facebook to build something to attract users at a young age. age and help them channel them to Facebook or Instagram. They also make it clear that Facebook is willing to ignore years of research – showing a lack of interest in the product and the danger of creating one – in order to achieve its goal of a social network for kids.

“Young children just aren’t ready for the interpersonal challenges of social media. This leads to excessive screen time, danger of cyberbullying, and all kinds of privacy issues. They are just not ready to be developmentally submitted to the belly of the beast, ”said Josh Golin, executive director of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. , a Boston-based nonprofit that opposes children using sophisticated technologies like social media. “Facebook is all about growing and beating the competition. And they use the kids as pawns in there.

What drove Facebook down this path was significant internal anxiety over Snapchat. The competing app launched in 2013 and unlike Facebook, Snapchat was popular with kids and teens, successfully gaining the attention of Facebook apps. Facebook is said to partially mitigate Snapchat’s expansion by copying its Stories feature and adding it to Instagram. To distance itself further from Snapchat, Facebook needed something more. He needed his own product focused on children.

These discussions on what he should build were “not necessarily rooted in the satisfaction of a basic need of consumers, but rather in the satisfaction of a need of Facebook”, explains this person involved in the discussions. Concretely: a need to push back Snapchat.

In the end, Facebook chose to create the Messenger Kids app because it would offer security features that a real social network couldn’t if it were to be successful, say two people familiar with its launch. Facebook executives saw it as a “walled garden,” these people say, hoping something like this would be easier to market to parents than a social network. (A thriving social network, on the other hand, should have looked more like an open field, a place users could explore freely with few restrictions.) Some of Messenger Kids’ safety measures included requiring parents to link Messenger Kids accounts of their children to their Facebook profiles, allowing them to easily monitor any activity and ensure that only parents can add people that their children are allowed to talk to on the app.

Yet even the truncated version of Facebook’s plans turned out to be problematic. Two years after its launch, Facebook admitted that a complicated design flaw in the app allowed kids to meet strangers in a group chat. He only admitted the error when two Democratic senators – Blumenthal and Ed Markey of Massachusetts – asked the company for details of the app. In response, Facebook closed the loophole and pledged to “meet and exceed the high standards of parents and families,” wrote Kevin Martin, Facebook’s vice president of U.S. public policy, in a 2019 letter to the Congress that the company then posted online.

Without being discouraged in its ambitions, Facebook would return to the idea of ​​a network of schools for children less than two years later, then choosing to attach the project to the Instagram brand, then less dejected. Last March, Buzzfeed revealed the initial plans for Instagram for Kids, posting an internal memo sent by Vishal Shah, then Instagram’s product manager, who considered the project “a priority for Instagram”.

These plans have gone awry again. In the face of criticism of the research posted on Instagram into adolescent mental health, Facebook has suspended its work on Instagram Kids – for now.

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