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Instagram’s privacy updates for kids are positive. But plans for an under-13s app means profits still take precedence
Facebook recently announced significant changes to Instagram for users aged under 16. New accounts will be private by default, and advertisers will be limited in how they can reach young people.
The new changes are long overdue and welcome. But Facebook’s commitment to childrens’ safety is still in question as it continues to develop a separate version of Instagram for kids aged under 13.
The company received significant backlash after the initial announcement in May. In fact, more than 40 US Attorneys General who usually support big tech banded together to ask Facebook to stop building the under-13s version of Instagram, citing privacy and health concerns.
Privacy and advertising
Online default settings matter. They set expectations for how we should behave online, and many of us will never shift away from this by changing our default settings.
Adult accounts on Instagram are public by default. Facebook’s shift to making under-16 accounts private by default means these users will need to actively change their settings if they want a public profile. Existing under-16 users with public accounts will also get a prompt asking if they want to make their account private.
These changes normalise privacy and will encourage young users to focus their interactions more on their circles of friends and followers they approve. Such a change could go a long way in helping young people navigate online privacy.
Facebook has also limited the ways in which advertisers can target Instagram users under age 18 (or older in some countries). Instead of targeting specific users based on their interests gleaned via data collection, advertisers can now only broadly reach young people by focusing ads in terms of age, gender and location.
This change follows recently publicised research that showed Facebook was allowing advertisers to target young users with risky interests — such as smoking, vaping, alcohol, gambling and extreme weight loss — with age-inappropriate ads.
This is particularly worrying, given Facebook’s admission there is “no foolproof way to stop people from misrepresenting their age” when joining Instagram or Facebook. The apps ask for date of birth during sign-up, but have no way of verifying responses. Any child who knows basic arithmetic can work out how to bypass this gateway.
Of course, Facebook’s new changes do not stop Facebook itself from collecting young users’ data. And when an Instagram user becomes a legal adult, all of their data collected up to that point will then likely inform an incredibly detailed profile which will be available to facilitate Facebook’s main business model: extremely targeted advertising.
Deploying Instagram’s top dad
Facebook has been highly strategic in how it released news of its recent changes for young Instagram users. In contrast with Facebook’s chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, Instagram’s head Adam Mosseri has turned his status as a parent into a significant element of his public persona.
Since Mosseri took over after Instagram’s creators left Facebook in 2018, his profile has consistently emphasised he has three young sons, his curated Instagram stories include #dadlife and Lego, and he often signs off Q&A sessions on Instagram by mentioning he needs to spend time with his kids.
When Mosseri posted about the changes for under-16 Instagram users, he carefully framed the news as coming from a parent first, and the head of one of the world’s largest social platforms second. Similar to many influencers, Mosseri knows how to position himself as relatable and authentic.
Age verification and ‘potentially suspicious’ adults
In a paired announcement on July 27, Facebook’s vice-president of youth products Pavni Diwanji announced Facebook and Instagram would be doing more to ensure under-13s could not access the services.
Diwanji said Facebook was using artificial intelligence algorithms to stop “adults that have shown potentially suspicious behavior” from being able to view posts from young people’s accounts, or the accounts themselves. But Facebook has not offered an explanation as to how a user might be found to be “suspicious”.
Diwanji notes the company is “building similar technology to find and remove accounts belonging to people under the age of 13”. But this technology isn’t being used yet.
It’s reasonable to infer Facebook probably won’t actively remove under-13s from either Instagram or Facebook until the new Instagram For Kids app is launched — ensuring those young customers aren’t lost to Facebook altogether.
Despite public backlash, Diwanji’s post confirmed Facebook is indeed still building “a new Instagram experience for tweens”. As I’ve argued in the past, an Instagram for Kids — much like Facebook’s Messenger for Kids before it — would be less about providing a gated playground for children and more about getting children familiar and comfortable with Facebook’s family of apps, in the hope they’ll stay on them for life.
A Facebook spokesperson told The Conversation that a feature introduced in March prevents users registered as adults from sending direct messages to users registered as teens who are not following them.
“This feature relies on our work to predict peoples’ ages using machine learning technology, and the age people give us when they sign up,” the spokesperson said.
They said “suspicious accounts will no longer see young people in ‘Accounts Suggested for You’, and if they do find their profiles by searching for them directly, they won’t be able to follow them”.
Resources for parents and teens
For parents and teen Instagram users, the recent changes to the platform are a useful prompt to begin or to revisit conversations about privacy and safety on social media.
Instagram does provide some useful resources for parents to help guide these conversations, including a bespoke Australian version of their Parent’s Guide to Instagram created in partnership with ReachOut. There are many other online resources, too, such as CommonSense Media’s Parents’ Ultimate Guide to Instagram.
Regarding Instagram for Kids, a Facebook spokesperson told The Conversation the company hoped to “create something that’s really fun and educational, with family friendly safety features”.
But the fact that this app is still planned means Facebook can’t accept the most straightforward way of keeping young children safe: keeping them off Facebook and Instagram altogether.
I was delighted to join Dr Anna Bunn, Deputy Head of Curtin Law School, and the Future Of team for a podcast interview all about Children’s Online Privacy.
The half hour podcast is online here in various formats, including shownotes, or embedded in this post:
What’s the impact of parents sharing content of their children online? And what rights do children have in this space?
In this episode, Jessica is joined by Dr Anna Bunn, Deputy Head of Curtin Law School and Tama Leaver, Professor of Internet Studies at Curtin University to discuss “sharenting” – the growing practice of parents sharing images and data of their children online. The three examine the social, legal and developmental impacts a life-long digital footprint can have on a child.
- What is the impact of sharing child-related content on our kids? [04:08]
- What type of tools and legal protections would you like to see in the future to protect children? [16:30]
- At what age can a child give consent to share content [18:25]
- What about the right to be forgotten [21:11]
- What’s best practice for sharing child-related content online? [26:01]
1. Instagram’s evolution
When it was launched on October 6, 2010 by Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, Instagram was an iPhone-only app. The user could take photos (and only take photos — the app could not load existing images from the phone’s gallery) within a square frame. These could be shared, with an enhancing filter if desired. Other users could comment or like the images. That was it.
In 2012, Facebook purchased Instagram for a deal worth a $US1 billion (A$1.4 billion), which in retrospect probably seems cheap. Instagram is now one of the most profitable jewels in the Facebook crown.
Instagram has integrated new features over time, but it did not invent all of them.
Instagram Stories, with more than half a billion daily users, was shamelessly borrowed from Snapchat in 2016. It allowed users to post 10-second content bites which disappear after 24 hours. The rivers of casual and intimate content (later integrated into Facebook) are widely considered to have revitalised the app.
Similarly, IGTV is Instagram’s answer to YouTube’s longer-form video. And if the recently-released Reels isn’t a TikTok clone, we’re not sure what else it could be.
2. Under the influencers
Instagram is largely responsible for the rapid professionalisation of the influencer industry. Insiders estimated the influencer industry would grow to US$9.7 billion (A$13.5 billion) in 2020, though COVID-19 has since taken a toll on this as with other sectors.
As early as in 2011, professional lifestyle bloggers throughout Southeast Asia were moving to Instagram, turning it into a brimming marketplace. They sold ad space via post captions and monetised selfies through sponsored products. Such vernacular commerce pre-dates Instagram’s Paid Partnership feature, which launched in late-2017.
The use of images as a primary mode of communication, as opposed to the text-based modes of the blogging era, facilitated an explosion of aspiring influencers. The threshold for turning oneself into an online brand was dramatically lowered.
Instagrammers relied more on photography and their looks — enhanced by filters and editing built into the platform.
Soon, the “extremely professional and polished, the pretty, pristine, and picturesque” started to become boring. Finstagrams (“fake Instagram”) and secondary accounts proliferated and allowed influencers to display behind-the-scenes snippets and authenticity through calculated performances of amateurism.
3. Instabusiness as usual
As influencers commercialised Instagram captions and photos, those who had owned online shops turned hashtag streams into advertorial campaigns. They relied on the labour of followers to publicise their wares and amplify their reach.
Bigger businesses followed suit and so did advice from marketing experts for how best to “optimise” engagement.
In mid-2016, Instagram belatedly launched business accounts and tools, allowing companies easy access to back-end analytics. The introduction of the “swipeable carousel” of story content in early 2017 further expanded commercial opportunities for businesses by multiplying ad space per Instagram post. This year, in the tradition of Instagram corporatising user innovations, it announced Instagram Shops would allow businesses to sell products directly via a digital storefront. Users had previously done this via links.
Instagram isn’t just where we tell the visual story of ourselves, but also where we co-create each other’s stories. Nowhere is this more evident than the way parents “sharent”, posting their children’s daily lives and milestones.
Many children’s Instagram presence begins before they are even born. Sharing ultrasound photos has become a standard way to announce a pregnancy. Over 1.5 million public Instagram posts are tagged #genderreveal.
Sharenting raises privacy questions: who owns a child’s image? Can children withdraw publishing permission later?
Sharenting entails handing over children’s data to Facebook as part of the larger realm of surveillance capitalism. A saying that emerged around the same time as Instagram was born still rings true: “When something online is free, you’re not the customer, you’re the product”. We pay for Instagram’s “free” platform with our user data and our children’s data, too, when we share photos of them.
5. Seeing through the frame
Short-lived Instagram Stories and disappearing Direct Messages add more spaces to express more things without the threat of permanence.
The events of 2020 have shown our ways of seeing on Instagram reveal the possibilities and pitfalls of social media.
Instagram is rife with disinformation and conspiracy theories which hijack the look and feel of authoritive content. The template of popular Instagram content can see familiar aesthetics weaponised to spread misinformation.
Ultimately, the last decade has seen Instagram become one of the main lenses through which we see the world, personally and politically. Users communicate and frame the lives they share with family, friends and the wider world.
Tama Leaver, Associate Professor in Internet Studies, Curtin University; Crystal Abidin, Senior Research Fellow & ARC DECRA, Internet Studies, Curtin University, Curtin University, and Tim Highfield, Lecturer in Digital Media and Society, University of Sheffield
Last week’s Digitising Early Childhood conference here in Perth was a fantastic event which brought together so many engaging and provocative scholars in a supportive and policy/action-orientated environment (which I suppose I should call ‘engagement and impact’-orientated in Australia right now). For a pretty well document overview of the conference itself, you can see the quite substantial tweets collected via the #digikids17 hashtag on Twitter, which I’d really encourage you to look over. My head is still buzzing, so instead to trying to synthesise everyone else’s amazing work, I’m just going to quickly point to the material that arose my three different talks in case anyone wishes to delve further.
First up, here are the slides for my keynote ‘Turning Babies into Big Data—And How to Stop It’:
If you’d like to hear the talk that goes with the slides, there’s an audio recording you can download here. (I think these were filmed, so if a link becomes available at some point, I’ll update and post it here.) There was a great response to my talk, which was humbling and gratifying at the same time. There was also quite a lot of press interest, too, so here’s the best pieces that are available online (and may prove a more accessible overview of some of the issues I explored):
- Rebecca Turner’s ABC article ‘Owlet Smark Sock prompts warning for parents, fears over babies’ sensitive health data’;
- Leon Compton’s interview on ABC Radio Tasmania ‘Social media and parenting: the do’s and don’ts’ (audio);
- Brigid O’Connell’s Herald Sun story, Parents may be unwittingly turning babies into big data (paywalled); and
- Cathy O’Leary’s story in The Western Australian, Parents airing kids’ lives on social media.
While our argument is still being polished, the slides for this version of Crystal Abidin and my paper From YouTube to TV, and back again: Viral video child stars and media flows in the era of social media are also available:
This paper began as a discussion after our piece about Daddy O Five in The Conversation and where the complicated questions about children in media first became prominent. Crystal wasn’t able to be there in person, but did a fantastic Snapchat-recorded 5-minute intro, while I brought home the rest of the argument live. Crystal has a great background page on her website, linking this to her previous work in the area. There was also press interest in this talk, and the best piece to listen to (and hear Crystal and I in dialogue, even though this was recorded at different times, on different continents!):
- Brett Worthington’s Life Matters segment on Radio National, How social media videos turn children into viral sensations (audio)
Finally, as part of the Higher Degree by Research and Early Career Researcher Day which ended the conference, I presented a slightly updated version of my workshop ‘Developing a scholarly web presence & using social media for research networking’:
Overall, it was a very busy, but very rewarding conference, with new friends made, brilliant new scholarship to digest, and surely some exciting new collaborations begun!
Over the next month, I’m lucky enough to be involved in three separate events focused on infancy online, digital media and early childhood. The details …
 Thinking the Digital: Children, Young People and Digital Practice – Friday, 8th September, Sydney – is co-hosted by the Office of the eSafety Commissioner; Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University; and Department of Media and Communications, University of Sydney. The event opens with a keynote by visiting LSE Professor Sonia Livingstone, and is followed by three sessions discussing youth, childhood and the digital age is various forms. While Sonia Livingstone is reason enough to be there, the three sessions are populated by some of the best scholars in Australia, and it should be a really fantastic discussion. I’ll be part of the second session on Rights-based Approaches to Digital Research, Policy and Practice. There are limited places, and a small fee, involved if you’re interested in attending, so registration is a must! To follow along on Twitter, the official hashtag is #ThinkingTheDigital.
The day before this event, Sonia Livingston is also giving a public seminar at WSU’s Parramatta City campus if you’re in able to attend on the afternoon of Thursday, 7th September.
 The following week is the big Digitising Early Childhood International Conference 2017 which runs 11-15 September, features a great line-up of keynotes as well as a truly fascinating range of papers on early childhood in the digital age. I’m lucky enough to be giving the conference’s first keynote on Tuesday morning, entitled ‘Turning Babies into Big Data–And How to Stop it’. I’ll also be presenting Crystal Abidin and my paper ‘From YouTube to TV, and Back Again: Viral Video Child Stars and Media Flows in the Era of Social Media‘ on the Wednesday and running a session on the final day called ‘Strategies for Developing a Scholarly Web Presence during a Higher Degree & Early Career’ as part of the Higher Degree by Research/Early Career Researcher Day. It should be a very busy, but also incredibly engaging week! To follow tweets from conference, the official hashtag is #digikids17.
 Finally, as part of Research and Innovation Week 2017 at Curtin University, at midday on Thursday 21st September I’ll be presenting a slightly longer version of my talk Turning Babies into Big Data—and How to Stop It in the Adventures in Culture and Technology series hosted by Curtin’s Centre for Culture and Technology. This is a free talk, open to anyone, but please either RSVP to this email, or use the Facebook event page to indicate you’re coming.
A new piece in The Conversation from Crystal Abidin and me …
The “pranks” would routinely involve the parents fooling their kids into thinking they were in trouble, screaming and swearing at them, only the reveal “it was just a prank” as their children sob on camera.
Despite its removal the content continues to circulate in summary videos from Philip DeFranco and other popular YouTubers who are critiquing the DaddyOFive channel. And you can still find videos of parents pranking their children on other channels around YouTube. But the videos also raise wider issues about children in online media, particularly where the videos make money. With over 760,000 subscribers, it is estimated that DaddyOFive earned between US$200,000-350,000 each year from YouTube advertising revenue.
The rise of influencers
Kid reactions on YouTube are a popular genre, with parents uploading viral videos of their children doing anything from tasting lemons for the first time to engaging in baby speak. Such videos pre-date the internet, with America’s Funniest Home Videos (1989-) and other popular television shows capitalising on “kid moments”.
In the era of mobile devices and networked communication, the ease with which children can be documented and shared online is unprecedented. Every day parents are “sharenting”, archiving and broadcasting images and videos of their children in order to share the experience with friends.
Even with the best intentions, though, one of us (Tama) has argued that photos and videos shared with the best of intentions can inadvertently lead to “intimate surveillance”, where online platforms and corporations use this data to build detailed profiles of children.
YouTube and other social media have seen the rise of influencer commerce, where seemingly ordinary users start featuring products and opinions they’re paid to share. By cultivating personal brands through creating a sense of intimacy with their consumers, these followings can be strong enough for advertisers to invest in their content, usually through advertorials and product placements. While the DaddyOFive channel was clearly for-profit, the distinction between genuine and paid content is often far from clear.
From the womb to celebrity
As with DaddyOFive, these influencers can include entire families, including children whose rights to participate, or choose not to participate, may not always be considered. In some cases, children themselves can be the star, becoming microcelebrities, often produced and promoted by their parents.
South Korean toddler Yebin, for instance, first went viral as a three-year-old in 2014 in a video where her mom was teaching her to avoid strangers. Since then, Yebin and her younger brother have been signed to influencer agencies to manage their content, based on the reach of their channel which has accumulated over 21 million views.
Two new articles …
[X] Visualising the Ends of Identity: Pre-Birth and Post-Death on Instagram in Information, Communication and Society by me and Tim Highfield. This is one of the first Ends of Identity article coming from our big Instagram dataset, analysing the first year (2014). We’ll be writing more looking at the three years we collected (14-16) before the Instagram APIs changed and locked us out! Here’s the abstract:
This paper examines two ‘ends’ of identity online – birth and death – through the analytical lens of specific hashtags on the Instagram platform. These ends are examined in tandem in an attempt to surface commonalities in the way that individuals use visual social media when sharing information about other people. A range of emerging norms in digital discourses about birth and death are uncovered, and it is significant that in both cases the individuals being talked about cannot reply for themselves. Issues of agency in representation therefore frame the analysis. After sorting through a number of entry points, images and videos with the #ultrasound and #funeral hashtags were tracked for three months in 2014. Ultrasound images and videos on Instagram revealed a range of communication and representation strategies, most highlighting social experiences and emotional peaks. There are, however, also significant privacy issues as a significant proportion of public accounts share personally identifiable metadata about the mother and unborn child, although these issue are not apparent in relation to funeral images. Unlike other social media platforms, grief on Instagram is found to be more about personal expressions of loss rather than affording spaces of collective commemoration. A range of related practices and themes, such as commerce and humour, were also documented as a part of the spectrum of activity on the Instagram platform. Norms specific to each collection emerged from this analysis, which are then compared to document research about other social media platforms, especially Facebook.
[X] Instagrammatics and digital methods: studying visual social media, from selfies and GIFs to memes and emoji in Communication, Research and Practice, also authored by Tim Highfield and me. This paper came out earlier in the year, but I forgot to mention it here. The abstract:
Visual content is a critical component of everyday social media, on platforms explicitly framed around the visual (Instagram and Vine), on those offering a mix of text and images in myriad forms (Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr), and in apps and profiles where visual presentation and provision of information are important considerations. However, despite being so prominent in forms such as selfies, looping media, infographics, memes, online videos, and more, sociocultural research into the visual as a central component of online communication has lagged behind the analysis of popular, predominantly text-driven social media. This paper underlines the increasing importance of visual elements to digital, social, and mobile media within everyday life, addressing the significant research gap in methods for tracking, analysing, and understanding visual social media as both image-based and intertextual content. In this paper, we build on our previous methodological considerations of Instagram in isolation to examine further questions, challenges, and benefits of studying visual social media more broadly, including methodological and ethical considerations. Our discussion is intended as a rallying cry and provocation for further research into visual (and textual and mixed) social media content, practices, and cultures, mindful of both the specificities of each form, but also, and importantly, the ongoing dialogues and interrelations between them as communication forms.
At yesterday’s outstanding Controlling Data: Somebody Think of the Children symposium I presented the first version of my new paper “Intimate Surveillance: Normalizing Parental Monitoring and Mediation of Infants Online.” Here’s the abstract:
Parents are increasingly sharing information about infants online in various forms and capacities. In order to more meaningfully understand the way parents decide what to share about young people, and the way those decisions are being shaped, this paper focuses on two overlapping areas: parental monitoring of babies and infants through the example of wearable technologies; and parental mediation through the example of the public sharing practices of celebrity and influencer parents. The paper begins by contextualizing these parental practices within the literature on surveillance, with particular attention to online surveillance and the increasing importance of affect. It then gives a brief overview of work on pregnancy mediation, monitoring on social media, and via pregnancy apps, which is the obvious precursor to examining parental sharing and monitoring practices regarding babies and infants. The examples of parental monitoring and parental mediation will then build on the idea of “intimate surveillance” which entails close and seemingly invasive monitoring by parents. Parental monitoring and mediation contribute to the normalization of intimate surveillance to the extent that surveillance is (re)situated as a necessary culture of care. The choice to not survey infants is thus positioned, worryingly, as a failure of parenting.
An mp3 recording of the audio is available, and the slides are below:
The full version of this paper is currently under review, but if you’re interested in reading the draft, just email me.
So 2016 seems to be all about the workshops and Summer School so far!
- On 1 February, my first day back from leave, I presented “Developing a Scholarly Web Presence and Using Social Media for Research Networking” at the Perth Research Bazaar (ResBaz) held at Murdoch University (slides available here). The talk was vey well received, with some great questions. Also, kudos to the organizers for the ease of parking!
- Last week I had the great pleasure in facilitating several workshops with my collaborator Tim Highfield, updating our “Instagrammatics: Analysing Visual Social Media Workshop” (slides here) for the 2016 CCI Summer School on Digital Methods hosted by the fabulous folks at the QUT Digital Media Research Centre. This was a fabulous event, with participants from across the world, all exploring the nuances of Digital Media methods and research. Tim and I learnt just as much from our participants as we brought to the table, which makes events like this so very rewarding. And there may have been one or two moments of levity, too!
- On March 8th I’ll be giving a talk Introducing TrISMA – Tracking Infrastructure for Social Media Analytics with Alkim Ozaygen. This will be held in the new Internet of Everything Innovation Centre at Curtin and is hosted by the Curtin Institute for Computation (CIC).
- On March 30th, I’ll be facilitating a workshop at ECU Mouth Lawley (and livestreamed elsewhere, I believe) on “Promoting Your Research Online and Social Media Awareness”. This is tailored for ECU’s postgradaute students, but is open for anyone else to attend.
- Finally, for now, on May 2 I’ll be the first presenter at the Socialising Your Research – Postgrad and ECR Workshop @ UWA (flyer below). This event is open at anyone interested in WA, but RSVPs are needed (see the flyer for details).
On 8 March, I’ll be presenting an overview of TrISMA – Tracking Infrastructure for Social Media Analysis for interested researchers at Curtin. Details in the embedded flyer …
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