Around 2017, Facebook convened a group of executives to work on a top priority: a product targeted at preteens and children. Part of these discussions, which haven’t previously been reported, centered on whether they should build a Facebook-branded social network for kids with features resembling the namesake app’s algorithmic News Feed. Creating something like this felt essential. Even then, Snapchat had gained significant ground on Facebook, siphoning away young users. (Facebook and Instagram, technically, catered only to ages 13 and up.)
These discussions reached high up the food chain, going as far as Chris Cox, the chief product officer. For further study, Facebook convened research groups of parents to gauge whether they’d let their children use something like that. The reports returned a definite conclusion: Parents weren’t interested at all, uneager to let their kids loose in a digital arena as expansive as Facebook. Facebook shelved the plans, weighed down by further concerns the kids-focused social network would present a plump target for media criticism.
“The reason they didn’t build it was not because they didn’t want to but out of concerns for how it would be received,” says a person familiar with these discussions.
The research did show parents would be open to a messaging app for kids. With that mind, Facebook developed Messenger Kids, a text- and video-messaging tool full of parental controls over access. It launched in December 2017 and pointedly left off Facebook from the app’s branding to emphasize the new product was not at all a social network. (“We built Messenger Kids only after talking to parents and kids, as well as online safety and child development experts for nearly a year,” says a Facebook spokesperson. “They said there was a need for a communications app that lets kids connect with their friends and family while giving parents control over the experience.”)
Facebook’s desire to build things for children landed it in front of Congress on Thursday as Senators on the consumer protection subcommittee expressed concerns about whether Facebook could keep kids safe with such a product. The hearing was prompted by a Wall Street Journal story last month that revealed 2020 research by Instagram into the network’s negative effects on teen health. Facebook has since released some of those studies in an effort to discredit them, criticizing their sample sizes and initial conclusions, among other things. In reality, the research made public largely buttresses the Journal’s reporting, showing, for example, that around 15% of teen boys said Instagram worsens anxiety and sleep issues and some 20% of all teens in one Instagram study said it made them feel worse about themselves. Despite all the data, Facebook as recently as last month was at work on a children’s version of Instagram.
Facebook has “attempted to deceive the public and us in Congress about what it knows, and it has weaponized childhood vulnerabilities against children themselves,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, of Connecticut, the committee’s Democratic chairman. “It’s chosen growth over children’s mental health and well-being, greed over preventing the suffering of children.”
But Thursday’s hearing only dwelt on Facebook’s recent efforts to create Instagram Kids. As the 2017 conversations that led to Messenger Kids show, the intention to build a social network for children goes back farther than the company has previously acknowledged and speaks to a profound and long-held wish within Facebook to construct something to attract users at a young age and help funnel them to Facebook or Instagram. They also make 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 reach its goal of a social network for kids.
“Younger children are just not ready for the interpersonal challenges of social media. It leads to excessive screen time, the danger of cyber bullying and all sorts of privacy concerns.They’re just not developmentally ready to be submitted to the belly of the beast,” says Josh Golin, executive director of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, a Boston-based nonprofit that opposes allowing children to use sophisticated tech like social media. “Facebook is all about growth and beating the competition. And they’re using kids as pawns in that.”
What led Facebook down this path was significant internal anxiety about Snapchat. The competitor app launched in 2013, and unlike Facebook, Snapchat enjoyed popularity among children and teens, successfully drawing away attention from Facebook’s apps. Facebook would partly blunt Snapchat’s expansion by copying its Stories function and adding it to Instagram. To further distance itself from Snapchat, Facebook needed something more. It needed its own children-focused product.
Those talks about what it should build were “not necessarily rooted in filling a fundamental consumer need but rather filling a need of Facebook’s,” says that person involved in the discussions. Specifically: a need to beat back Snapchat.
In the end, Facebook opted to construct the Messenger Kids app because it would offer safety features a true social network couldn’t if it wanted to be successful, say two people familiar with its launch. Facebook executives thought of it as a “walled garden,” those people say, hoping something like that would be easier to market to parents than a social network. (A prosperous social network, by contrast, would’ve needed to be 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 their children’s Messenger Kids accounts to their Facebook profiles, letting them easily monitor any activity and making it so only parents could add people for their children to talk on the app.
Yet even the truncated version of Facebook’s plans proved problematic. Two years after it launched, Facebook admitted that a complicated design flaw in the app allowed children to meet strangers in group chat. It only admitted to the error when two Democratic senators—Blumenthal and Massachusetts’ Ed Markey—pressed the company for details about the app. In a response, Facebook closed the loophole and vowed to “meet and exceed the high standards of parents and families,” Kevin Martin, Facebook’s vice president of U.S. public policy, wrote in a 2019 letter to Congress that the company later published online.
Undeterred in its ambitions, Facebook would circle back to the idea for a kid’s school network less than two years later, opting next to attach the project to the then less beaten down Instagram brand. Last March, Buzzfeed revealed initial plans for Instagram for Kids, publishing an internal memo sent by Vishal Shah, then Instagram’s head of product, that deemed the project “a priority for Instagram.”
Those plans have again gone awry. Facing the criticism around the released Instagram research into teen mental health, Facebook has paused work on Instagram Kids—for now.