The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday published the latest in its investigative series “The Facebook Files,” diving even deeper into the ubiquitous platform’s efforts to target and recruit young children.
Internal documents obtained by the Journal now reveal that Facebook formed a special team to study children and ponder ways in which they could be monetized. One such document is said to refer to children between the ages of 10 and 12 (“tweens”) as a “valuable but untapped audience.” Another suggests “leveraging playdates” as means to drive Facebook’s “growth.”
Another document cited by the paper, dated March 2021, notes that Facebook is struggling with “global teen penetration” and warns that “acquisition” of teen users “appears to be slowing down.” Internally, Facebook expects its teenaged audience to plummet by an additional 45% by 2023, according to the Journal.
Facebook’s lucrative ad-driven business derives nearly all of its profit from the pervasive tracking of its users; data which it, in turn, uses to create exhaustive behavior profiles used to “micro-target” ads and measure their effectiveness. While federal law prohibits the harvesting of data belonging to children under the age of 13, Facebook has spent years searching for a way to convince children to adopt its services as soon as they’re old enough to be tracked.
Another Facebook document cited by the Journal states that children are “getting on the internet as young as six years old.” “Imagine a Facebook experience designed for youth,” it says.
This week, Facebook said it was pausing efforts to launch an “Instagram Kids” app. The announcement followed another Journal report indicating Facebook was aware through internal research that Instagram had had negative impacts on some teenage users’ mental health. “We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls,” the research said, noting as well that some teen girls had traced their own suicidal ideations to their experiences on the platform. Facebook later claimed that line from the research was misleading, and that the finding only applied to “those teenage girls who told us they were experiencing body image issues reported that using Instagram made them feel worse—not one in three of all teenage girls.”
The report led Democratic lawmakers to call on CEO Mark Zuckerberg to shutter the Instagram Kids project, saying they believe the app “poses significant threats to young people’s wellbeing.”
Facebook has challenged the Journal’s characterization of its Instagram research, but has so far refused to make that research available for review—and has worked to frustrate independent research into its platforms’ inner workings, generally. Nick Clegg, the company’s policy chief, said at a conference on Monday that Facebook will release two internal slide decks summarizing its research “both to Congress and then to the public in the next few days.”
The Facebook documents referring to children as a “valuable” and “untapped” demographic run contrary to its stated motivations for rolling out a kids-centric service: Facebook has argued that kids under 13 are likely to try and join Facebook and Instagram anyway while lying about their age. Creating an app specifically for children would help to protect them by segregate them from adults online, the company claims.
A Senate subcommittee chaired by Sen. Richard Blumenthal will convene a hearing at 10:30 am ET on Thursday to address the findings of Facebook’s unshared internal research. Expected to testify is Antigone Davis, Facebook’s global head of safety.
“This hearing will examine the toxic effects of Facebook and Instagram on young people and others, and is one of several that will ask tough questions about whether Big Tech companies are knowingly harming people and concealing that knowledge,” Blumenthal said.