‘Facebook trying to build apps for preteens for years’: Report

Updated on Sep 30, 2021 04:45 AM IST

Reported by the Wall Street Journal, the details about the company’s internal discussions to attract users below the age of 13 come days after reports said Facebook was aware of mental harm being caused to teenage users of Instagram.

That report, also by WSJ, has led to Facebook officials being summoned for a US Senate hearing.(Reuters)
That report, also by WSJ, has led to Facebook officials being summoned for a US Senate hearing.(Reuters)
By, New Delhi

Facebook, which announced this week it was putting on hold the development of a preteen version of Instagram, has been attempting to build social media products for preteens for years, a new report has said citing internal documents.

Reported by the Wall Street Journal, the details about the company’s internal discussions to attract users below the age of 13 come days after reports said Facebook was aware of mental harm being caused to teenage users of Instagram.

That report, also by WSJ, has led to Facebook officials being summoned for a US Senate hearing. The lawmakers are expected to probe Instagram’s effect on teen mental health.

“Why do we care about tweens?” the WSJ report, published on Tuesday, cited a Facebook document from 2020 as saying. “They are a valuable but untapped audience.” Tween refers to a child in the 10-12 year age bracket.

The report adds that the company, over the last five years, has made “big bets” on designing products that would appeal to preteens across its services.

The plans may not be surprising since tech companies are increasingly looking at younger users to drive growth as they try to sustain high growth rates that have slowly stagnated, especially in the case of large platforms.

The report cites problems with ByteDance’s TikTok and Google’s YouTube, which faced legal or regulatory challenges when attempted to open their products to children. The documents seen by WSJ show that Facebook’s plans were in part motivated by attempts to address competition from Snapchat and TikTok in attracting such users.

But these plans come at a time when there has been growing signs and examples of how broken policies, management and the technology have turned Facebook and its products into a source of significant harm.

The latest of this has been a series of stories by WSJ, that found documents showing the company selectively applies rules to users, letting celebrities and politicians get away with violations such as hate speech, its algorithms often reward outrage and anger, and its services have been abused by drug cartels and human traffickers.

At times, the cited documents showed, top executives such as CEO Mark Zuckerberg shot down attempts to address problems while at others, the company was simply unable to mitigate damage when it tried to.

The latest WSJ report now appears to detail the thinking that has gone behind the company’s push to court children: that these users would age into the company’s platform over time. A November 2020 presentation cited an eventual goal of pitching Facebook as the “Life Coach for Adulting”, the report said.

Instagram chief Adam Mosseri, when he announced the pause on Monday on the development of the version meant for children, said these were attempts to ensure underage users had a safe environment since they can otherwise simply lie about their age to access regular versions.

An older document found by the WSJ reporter dates back to 2018, which sought to make the case to “imagine a Facebook experience designed for youth”. This document showed the company’s attempts to study the behaviour of tweens (children in the age of 10-12) found: “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”.

In another document, a presentation, company researchers discussed the need to address a particular phenomenon: that of teen users discouraging their younger family members from oversharing on Instagram.

“If kids are under 13, they’re not allowed on Instagram and they should not be using our service,” the report quoted Mosseri as saying in a written statement for the latest 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,” he added.

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