Engineering Ethics Blog: Why Instagram for Kids?


 

Depends on who you
ask. 

 

If you ask Instagram,
which is part of Facebook, which is run by CEO Mark Zuckerberg, you will hear
things like the following.  Despite our
posted lower age limit of 13 for the regular Instagram image-sharing service,
we know a lot of kids younger than that are lying to get on it.  We would prefer to create a new service
designed just for pre-teenagers so we can customize it with parental controls
and so on, and bring Instagram to those younger users who
currently have to lie to use it.

 

If you ask the
attorneys general of forty U. S. states, they will cite sociological studies that
link social-media use to depression, anxiety, and bullying in young
people.  Following the news in March that
Instagram was contemplating this new service, the National Association of
Attorneys General got together and issued a letter  in May to Mark Zuckerberg asking him not to do
this thing.  That’s as far as the letter
went—they didn’t say what they’d do if he went ahead and did it anyway.  But the implication is clear that lawsuits
might be in the offing if the proposed new service causes problems in its
targeted age group.

 

Way back in the dark
ages of social media, shortly after 9/11/2001, I wrote an article speculating
on the ethical implications of electronic communication.  The immediate context was the fact that
during the Twin Towers attack that day, the radio systems that first responders
were relying on to coordinate their uniquely challenging rescue efforts largely
broke down.  At the time, I concluded
that, other things being equal, more communication among human beings was
better than less.  But back then,
Facebook wasn’t even a gleam in Zuckerberg’s eye, and hardly anybody imagined
the huge economic and social forces that growth of social media would lead to.

 

Some questions are
like diamond drills.  If you keep asking
them they just keep going deeper and deeper and sometimes reveal unexpected
things.  One of these questions is the
innocent-sounding, “What’s the point?”

 

If you ask Mark
Zuckerberg that question about Instagram for those under 13, I think the
bottom-line answer must be to make more money. 
There is a thin veneer of public service that social media likes to coat
their enterprises with.  And there is
justification for this veneer:  billions
of people (yes, billions) successfully use social media for largely innocent
activities such as keeping in touch with relatives and friends.  Because the vast majority of users do not pay
for the service, Facebook and Instagram have to manipulate things so that their
advertisers reach their intended audiences. 
The user is the product and the advertiser is the customer.

 

Right off the bat,
that step has strayed into a swamp that philosopher Immanuel Kant warned us
against.  I am told that he said in
effect, “Don’t treat people as means, but only as ends.”  That is to say, using people solely as a
means to something else is wrong. 

 

Of course, every
business enterprise in the world could be accused of such a thing, and so
providers of goods and services should not treat their customers only as
a means to make money.  And if Instagram
goes ahead with its plans for the under-13 crowd, I’m sure they will make
efforts to protect their users against some of the worst abuses that social
media can be used for:  stalking, sexual
predation, bullying, and other criminal activity.  But if they don’t make money at it, they will
have failed, because they are not a charity—they are a publicly-owned profit-making
organization, and the point of such organizations is to make money.

 

There is a reason
that Instagram currently says its users must be 13 or over.  Historically, at least within the last
century or so, children were regarded as especially worthy of protection and
special safeguards.  Just to give you an
antiquated example, I attended the Fort Worth Independent School District from
1960 to 1972.  At that time, both
teachers and parents made strenuous efforts to keep commercial enterprises and
advertising out of public schools.  The
only exception to this that I can recall is that in grade school, the teachers
offered to let us practice saving money, and gave us little envelopes with the
name of the First National Bank of Fort Worth printed on them.  That’s it: 
no TV, no sponsored commercial films, no nothing. 

 

I am told that
things are different now.  History may
judge our time as a peculiarly child-hostile period.  The ideal of a child being raised to
adulthood by his two biological parents—one male, one female—is receding into
the past as other situations arise that are more convenient to the parents,
maybe, but shortchange the kids.  And I
need not mention abortion as the ultimate child-hostile policy, but I did
anyway.  In an era of declining
birthrates, more people than ever are asking “What’s the point?”
about the whole business of childbearing in the first place, and coming up with
a negative answer.

 

For a time, advertising
on children’s TV shows was also controversial, but that battle has receded into
the distant past as TV itself turns into a bewildering array of shape-melding
forms that anybody can access, even the baby in the nursery.  Short of getting laws passed that prohibit
Instagram for kids under 13, even the state attorneys general can’t do much
more than write letters saying that they won’t be happy if Instagram goes ahead
with its plans.

 

Rather than further
erode the influence and authority of parents over their children by taking even
more of the child’s attention away from the live human beings who care for them
and using them as a means of profit as well as providing a dubious service that
so far they have done fine without, I hope that Zuckerberg listens to the
attorneys general and declares the under-13 set sacrosanct from further
intrusions by his firm.  But to do so
would indicate that he is getting a different answer to the question of what
the point is than he’s gotten up to now. 
And so far, he’s given no sign of doing so.

 

Sources:  I referred to a report on the Instagram plans
at
https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/ryanmac/facebook-instagram-for-children-under-13
and the reaction of the attorneys general at https://www.theguardian.com/technology/shortcuts/2021/may/11/instagram-for-kids-the-social-media-site-no-one-asked-for.  Their letter to Zuckerberg can be found at https://ag.ny.gov/sites/default/files/naag_letter_to_facebook_-_final.pdf.  I heard about this issue on the Drew Mariani Show,
a feature of the Relevant Radio network.



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