How does Big Tech really see your child? As a fledgling digital citizen to be nurtured? Or a pipeline to ever-greater profits?
To prevent children - aka future revenue - from defecting to a competing app, Instagram has been stalking the teen market like a digital sheep in wolf’s clothing, according to internal documents released this week. The unsuspecting target? “Early high school-ers” - classified as 13- to 15-year-olds.
Why this age group? Because it represents the major conduit to Instagram’s parent, Facebook, whose ageing user base has been a major concern for the company’s future profitability. Instagram, the thinking goes, is like the training wheels. Facebook is the racing bike.
“If we lose the teen foothold,” read a 2020 Instagram strategy memo, “we lose the pipeline.”
According to the most recent surveys, only 22% of teens say Instagram is their number-one social media platform - trailing both Snapchat (which Facebook tried and failed to acquire in 2013) and TikTok.
Worries about the slow but steady leakage of kids’ engagement, Instagram executives slated nearly its entire global marketing budget to luring them back.
If we lose the teen foothold,” read a 2020 Instagram strategy memo, “we lose the pipeline.”
The average time teens spent on Instagram during the pandemic was three to four hours. That represented a 200% bump over pre-COVID usage. But more recently, with restrictions lifting, classrooms re-opening and “teen time spent” declining, company executives have been panicking.
Desperate to retain and grow young users, whose attention is notoriously fickle, the company has scrambled to re-assert its dominance, pouring millions into digital ads aimed squarely at hitting teen targets.
The disclosures could not have come at a worse time for the company. Last month, the Wall Street Journal published a bombshell investigation revealing Facebook has long known that Instagram poses a serious mental health risk to vulnerable teen girls.
And former manager turned whistleblower Frances Haugen testified before the US Senate that the company deliberately engineered the platform to create compulsive use by kids.
Undeterred, Instagram head Adam Mosseri’s vision statement for the company described the app as “a place where young people define themselves and future,” adding that “young people and creators are at the forefront of emerging culture, which is where Instagram plays.”
Last month, under unrelenting public pressure, Instagram paused its work on a version of the app targeting kids under 13. But Mosseri has insisted that “building ‘Instagram Kids’ is the right thing to do” and has promised a service featuring safety measures and content geared to tweens aged 10-12.
“The reality,” he said, “is that kids are already online.”
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