Sean Herman Contributor Share on Twitter Sean Herman is the CEO of Kinzoo, a kid tech company based in Vancouver, BC, and is the author of “Screen Captured: Helping Families Explore the Digital World in the Age of Manipulation.” In a blog post announcing plans to temporarily stop developing a new app targeted at children, Instagram head Adam Mosseri wrote, “the reality is that kids are already online, and we believe that developing age-appropriate experiences designed specifically for them is far better for parents than where we are today.”
It’s rare that I find common ground with the head of Instagram, but he is right about this point. Kids and tweens need access to technology that meets their unique needs.
He’s just dead wrong about the solution.
Instagram Kids is a terrible idea, and, thankfully, plans for the pint-size version of the app have been put on hold. This development comes on the heels of yet another controversy — this one about the effects Instagram has on young people’s mental health. Instagram’s internal research suggests that the platform can be a toxic place for teens.
It’s possible for companies to build platforms that better support parents, kids and tweens — but it can’t be done by moving fast and breaking things.
As a father and the founder of a tech company for kids, I always felt that platforms built on social validation, comparison and FOMO weren’t appropriate for younger users. And even though Facebook claimed in public that their research suggested a net-positive effect on mental health, behind closed doors, they had evidence that might not be the case.
Despite all this, I know that healthy technology for kids does exist. It’s possible for companies to build platforms that better support parents, kids and tweens — but it can’t be done by moving fast and breaking things.
Kids are growing up connected
Technology is an ever-present part of our lives and the lives of our children. According to Common Sense Media’s 2020 census on media use, kids from birth to age 8 have almost two and a half hours of screen time daily.
And that was before COVID-19 shuttered schools and made playdates impossible. Kids have turned to screens for remote learning, entertainment, and socializing with friends and family, and many parents will tell you that this increased screen time is a serious source of anxiety.
I believe that lots of parents inherently see the value in technology, especially when it’s been a lifeline keeping us connected during a pandemic. But there’s ambivalence baked in here since there’s a serious dearth of high-quality, safe environments for kids online. As a result, families turn to platforms that were never designed to meet the needs of children, often at the cost of their peace of mind.
Retrofitting adult platforms isn’t the answer
When you think of popular kids’ apps, what comes to mind? Facebook Messenger Kids? YouTube Kids? These platforms all have something in common: They’re repackaged versions of adult apps, and they’ve had safety- and privacy-related scandals. That’s because adult apps simply don’t retrofit well for children. There are a few different reasons for this.
First, a lot of adult platforms are designed to be sticky. This is reflected in features like endless feeds, auto-playing content and arbitrary “streaks.”
These apps also have a way of using our own psychology against us to keep us scrolling. They exploit our need to belong by quantifying social validation. Because of follower counts, like buttons, comments and shares, we can see exactly how popular we are — and we can compare our metrics to others. Many adults can find these features anxiety inducing, and I don’t believe they belong in platforms designed for young users with brains that are still developing. They show up again and again in retrofitted apps for children because they’re at the core of these products.
Second, many tech platforms are wide-open networks. This is not the one-way media that we grew up with. Lots of social and gaming platforms encourage users to amass friends and followers and exchange messages and comments, which can pose serious safety risks for young, inexperienced internet users.
A recent report from Thorn found that scores of children are using adult platforms before they turn 13, and a startling majority of them encounter “abuse, harassment or sexual solicitation from adults.”
When companies try to retrofit platforms for kids that eliminate the stranger danger, they’ve had varied success. Facebook Messenger Kids infamously included a design flaw that allowed children to connect and chat with strangers. That’s because it’s really difficult to take an open network and work backward to lock it up. When it comes to safety, you really need to start from the ground up.
Finally, retrofitted platforms rarely appeal to kids the same way that their adult counterparts do. Ask any parent: Kids love YouTube. Not so much with YouTube Kids. Children are always in a hurry to grow up. They want to feel empowered, and mini versions of adult apps do the opposite. It’s the technical version of the kids’ table, so getting buy-in from young users can be a struggle.
Parental controls can only take you so far
With all the dangers that exist out there for children online, you might think that parental controls are the obvious answer. That’s clearly what Facebook is thinking with their plans for Instagram Kids. But if you ask me, no parental control in the world will stop kids from comparing themselves to others. Again, it’s inherent to the platform.
Parental controls also won’t stop kids from finding creative workarounds. Children are resourceful when they want to circumvent screen time limits. They’re often just tiny, motivated hackers. With all that in mind, the best thing parents can do is get involved — like, really involved — with their kids’ digital lives.
Build a foundation with parental involvement and co-play
If you’ve ever googled “screen time recommendations,” you already know that experts in digital parenting rarely agree on anything. But one thing we hear consistently is that parents need to be involved in their kids’ digital lives.
We need to explore and play together. This gives us the chance to model appropriate behaviors for children and educate them about the big, bad online world. It’s also a lovely way to spend quality time with your kids. Ask them about the games they like. Get them to teach you how they work. Dedicate one night a week to enjoy screen time together.
When tech companies sell parental controls as the ultimate answer for kids’ apps, they’re doing us a disservice. Rules and restrictions are obviously important, but what we truly need are opportunities to use technology together with our kids. We need apps that the whole family can enjoy together — not just where parents can toggle a switch, set a limit and leave.
We need to think beyond parental controls if we want to help children develop healthy relationships with technology. We need to talk to them about social validation. We need to make sure they understand their digital footprints. And we need to help them understand what motivates Big Tech companies.
A junior version of Instagram won’t make the internet a better place for kids or parents. It’ll just hook ’em young — which is something Facebook is clearly motivated to do.
Thankfully, plans for the new platform have been paused, but I sincerely hope they abandon it altogether. Facebook has a questionable track record, and it’s probably not the right company to develop products for children. And Instagram is definitely the wrong template.