Image copyright Getty Images Image caption Instagram is most popular with 13 to 17-year-olds
Facebook may have no choice but to drop its subsidiary Instagram for kids, US lawmakers have said.
The Senate Commerce Committee is urging Facebook to abandon its ephemeral photo-sharing app, citing concerns about its safety and the proliferation of false information.
Instagram is the most popular social network among children in the US.
More than 80% of pre-teens aged 13-17 have at least one account on social media.
Facebook is under political pressure over issues such as fake news, corruption and election meddling .
Rejecting Facebook’s analysis of Instagram’s motives, Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, says: “If it is not broke, why fix it?”
He added that Facebook has made “grotesque” safety mistakes over the past year – from the data breach of 50m users which leaked names, email addresses and encrypted passwords to the harvesting of friends’ data by political data firm Cambridge Analytica.
“Instagram didn’t lead the charge to save 50m people’s data. It’s not like Instagram is some massive privacy threat, but rather just another symptom of the larger problem,” said Senator Nelson.
As part of a parallel investigation by the committee, staff conducted an assessment of the safety of Instagram.
Senate staff found little data on the ages of kids who sign up to the platform and only 4% of Instagram users were concerned about the amount of user data.
What they did find, was a material increase in content that focused on bullying, revenge porn and even the promotion of suicide and self-harm among teens.
In total, staff found 138 examples of “lifestyle habits” on Instagram which would constitute child abuse material on Facebook – and 26 which, if they were on Facebook, would be illegal.
The senators say the “continued dominance” of Instagram for young people in the US creates additional risk as it provides an environment that is particularly appealing to those at the “at-risk” age of 13.
In addition, they cite concerns that the exposure to dubious content on Instagram’s mobile app has “reduced the likelihood that children and teens will view news stories.”
“With these in mind, it is clear that if these trends are not addressed, the continued existence of Instagram for children and youth in the United States presents a substantial public health risk,” they write.
Preventing ‘sheltering apps’
Nelson and Senator John Thune, Republican chair of the committee, say they believe that Instagram and other “so-called ‘residing apps’ – including, but not limited to, Snapchat and Twitter – act as ‘sheltering apps’ for children seeking to mask abusive behaviour and are inherently less secure than internet-based services.”
A Facebook spokesperson said that Instagram’s community guidelines prohibit all forms of bullying and that the company has “taken action over many years to remove content that is in violation of our standards, including threatening, explicit, or intimate images.”
In a separate letter to Zuckerberg, members of the US House of Representatives urged Facebook to extend its guidelines to Instagram, as the company prepares to launch a new standalone, parent-orientated version of its app .
Facebook has said it is working to improve its online safety policies in general. In a presentation to the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Justin Osofsky, Facebook’s VP of global affairs, conceded that there had been “some data misclassification and some posts that were prohibited when they were not”.
When asked about the advice to drop Instagram, he said: “Every single thing we do around safety is designed to be proactive and to take best practices across the media, across the world.”
Image copyright Getty Images Image caption Instagram, alongside the Apple App Store, is another major tech-focused site with social responsibility
Facebook has created a series of educational tools to help parents understand “social norms and usage tools” which it said “should be familiar to any parent who is concerned about their kids’ digital lives”.
The company is also undertaking a review of its advertising practices and has committed to developing a setting within Instagram that users can disable “so that you can start sharing meaningful posts about your life”.
Facebook has a range of apps available to children, with pre-teens expected to become increasingly prominent over the next five years, according to a recent report.