Facebook’s Instagram for kids is all about creating a ‘de facto lock-in effect’

Selina Johansson

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Instagram for kids is meant to lock them in as users for the long haul

Facebook (FB) is adamant about rolling out a version of Instagram designed for kids under 13. While the social network said Monday it’s putting the project on hold, it also made clear that the product, meant for kids between 10 and 12, will eventually hit the market.

The social media giant has been slammed for even broaching the idea of a version of the photo-sharing app for a younger crowd. Members of Congress and at least 44 attorneys general have opposed the move. And a Wall Street Journal investigation found that Facebook knows Instagram can harm girls’ mental health. The Senate Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Consumer Protection is scheduled to hold a hearing on the matter on Thursday.

Despite that scrutiny, however, Facebook has no plans to abandon the service.

Facebook says it’s forging ahead because kids under 13 already lie about their ages and join Instagram. So why not build out a safe service their parents can monitor?

But there’s more to the equation than Facebook simply protecting kids. The world’s largest social network is also keen on ensuring Instagram, which is more popular among younger users than Facebook, becomes a permanent part of those kids’ lives. Those kids, in turn, will generate advertising revenue for Facebook for years to come when they graduate to the full version of Instagram.

“By attracting kids early on, Instagram gets a chance to get them hooked and the platform emerges as their preferred choice,” Chapman University associate professor Niklas Myhr told Yahoo Finance. “While alternatives are only a click away, kids could increasingly see it as a hassle to go anywhere else than what they are used to. Instagram could become part of their social identity thereby creating a de facto lock-in effect.”

Facebook is for the olds

According to The Wall Street Journal, internal Facebook documents show the social network has seen its number of teen users drop over the last 10 years. Instagram, however, has been doing especially well with teens, with the Journal reporting that more than 40% of Instagram’s users are 22 and younger.

But Facebook is concerned that competing services like TikTok and Snapchat will usurp Instagram as the go-to platform for teens — and that already seems to be playing out.

According to eMarketer, Snapchat (SNAP) will have 42 million active monthly users between the ages of 9 and 15 this year. TikTok, meanwhile, will see 37.3 million active monthly users from that cohort. Instagram, however, will see 33.3 million users in that age group access their accounts in the same time period.

Notably, Snapchat and Instagram limit use to people 13 and older. TikTok, however, allows kids under 13 to use a setting on the app called TikTok for Younger Users that has additional safety and privacy protections. YouTube (GOOG, GOOGL) also offers YouTube Kids, which has its own set of limitations that differentiate it from the full version of the app.

YouTube also has a version of its service designed for kids. (Photo Illustration by Valera Golovniov/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Facebook’s only service for kids under 13 is Messenger Kids, which only lets kids interact with contacts approved by their parents. Without a proper version of Instagram, where kids can share or browse content, kids may choose to join another platform — and stay there into adulthood.

“Once you start putting things onto one platform, and you maximize that amount of content on that platform, now moving to a different platform creates extremely high switching costs,” University of Chicago Booth School of Business Professor Pradeep Chintagunta told Yahoo Finance. “All the birthdays that I keep track of are already on the platform. If I have to move to a different platform, then it’s going to be quite costly for me to recreate that entire experience.”

A version of Instagram for kids would allow younger users to build out their profiles and become lifelong Facebook users. However, the Wall Street Journal’s reporting about the toll Instagram can take on teens’ mental health has raised alarms about a version of the platform for even younger users.

“We know from outside studies that links between social media and unhappiness are larger for younger teens than older teens, so it doesn’t sound like a good idea for even younger kids to be on Instagram,” San Diego State University psychology professor Jean Twenge told Yahoo Finance.

Facebook’s reasoning and the potential for it to backfire

The way Facebook tells it, Instagram for kids is the perfect way to address the fact that children already join Instagram by masquerading as teenagers or adults. But there’s no guarantee they’ll quit the full version of Instagram just because there’s a kids’ version.

Patrons relax at the Myspace Lounge during South by Southwest  in Austin, Texas, on Friday night, March 16, 2012. (Jack Dempsey/AP Images for Myspace)

Patrons relax at the Myspace Lounge during South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, on Friday night, March 16, 2012. (Jack Dempsey/AP Images for Myspace)

More troublesome for Facebook, though, is the fact that kids’ tastes change as they age. And while they may like Instagram when they’re younger, they could tire of it as they grow into their teens, eventually leaving the platform for something new.

“If they view this as something that they used as a kid, maybe as they grow older they want to grow out of it, rather than continue being on the platform,” Chintagunta said. “So I think there are trade-offs, but obviously in [Facebook’s] mind, being part of the lives of these younger people, presumably, gives them a path to them later on in life.”

Facebook has seen that play out before. It directly benefited from younger users losing interest in the likes of MySpace, which is a shell of its former self, and Friendster, which no longer exists. Facebook doesn’t want to become a relic of people’s online pasts like those two platforms.

But the social media giant may want to reconsider its plans to recruit an army of tween users. Otherwise, it will have to keep contending with the scrutiny and condemnation of America’s lawmakers, advocacy groups, and concerned parents.

Daniel Howley is tech editor at Yahoo Finance.

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