• Teodora Pavkovic

Have you heard? IG for Kids is coming. Here's what a psychologist thinks about that.


A smiling baby girl dressed in a pink tutu and a flowery head-band, looking at her reflection in the mirror absolutely delighted


During a recent mentorship call with 5 young college women — I am advising them on their recently-launched healthy social media use campaign — I mentioned that Facebook just announced a new priority for its business: building a children’s [13 and under] version of Instagram.


How do you imagine their reaction? Indifference? Some excitement? An eye-roll?


As though on cue, 5 heads suddenly started swaying left-right, in perfect synchrony. And in perfect disapproval. They were horrified. One of my mentees unmuted herself, and said: “Just, NO.”


I could not agree with that “no” any more than I do already, and I am incredibly proud of colleagues at organizations like the Campaign for a Commercial-free Childhood, Better Screen Time, Bark.US and Every School among others, for voicing their own no-s and building a tidal wave of activism against this latest highly questionable Big Tech development. Will this have a real impact — of the magnitude that forced Amazon to scrap it’s plans for a New York City headquarters back in 2019? We can only hope, while continuing to work towards this outcome with further advocacy and activism.


In the meantime, there is one majorly overlooked ‘grassroots’ action we can take as guardians of today’s youngest generations, an action that would undercut the very idea of creating a children’s version of a popular social media platform in the first place — and that is, to keep young children outside of the digital bounds of these made-for-adults-only spaces.



Two children at an amusement park engaging with a smartphone

In a statement to The Verge, a Facebook spokesperson recently said: “Increasingly kids are asking their parents if they can join apps that help them keep up with their friends.” As if the answer: “Social media apps were not designed with children’s developmental needs in mind, therefore no, they may not use them until they are adults” is completely off the table, Facebook has also stated that it is: “exploring bringing a parent-controlled experience to Instagram to help kids keep up with their friends, discover new hobbies and interests, and more.”


The deep sigh I breathe as I write this is to calm down my own frustration at hearing this kind of narrative over, and over, and over again. The narrative that says that there is only 1 kind of “parent-controlled experience” [or any experience, for that matter] for the children of today — one that takes place online. As though not using the particular platform or app in question is not even an available option. As though suggesting it is crazy talk.


It is exactly this kind of narrative that tempts parents into toying with the ideas of smart diapers, self-pushing strollers, iPads built into newborn’s cribs and mobile phone holders hooked above newborns’ changing tables — technologies that have, for the most part, been built to distract little children into submission. It positions technological aides as absolute musts, instead of the options that they actually are, and transforms parents into complete tech-dependents. It also sets the perfect stage for the kind of polarized anti- vs pro-tech battles we have been witnessing among various experts over the past decade or so.


It has become impossible to talk about child development in today’s world without talking about technology.

I, too, have [unwillingly] found myself participating in this battle on a number of occasions. It has become impossible to talk about child development in today’s world without talking about technology, and at times, I am put on the spot and asked to swear my allegiance to one of two camps (not literally, of course, at least not yet). But you see, I don’t care much for having a two-option framework placed in front of me — that’s the kind of limited choice-making we typically impose on our little ones, at that stage when the biggest decision they can make is: 1 cookie vs 2 pieces of chocolate. “Because you can’t have both.”


Well, I am not interested in having both, anyway. My own professional interest lies primarily within the child development portion of this grand debate — anything else, including the technology, is part of the Appendix. So far as technology can help or hurt a child’s healthy development — I am extremely eager to talk about it. But little children don’t need technology in order to develop in a healthy way, which is why I object to a framework that places child development and technology on equal footing.


Can technology be an aide [to parents] — yes. Can it be educational [to a certain extent] — yes. As kids get older, can it contribute to their personal-socio-cultural identities — yes, absolutely! But my orientation, as a psychologist and parenting coach, is to ask the following question first: To what extent can the use of a particular piece of technology disrupt [short- or long-term] a young child’s development? If it can, I couldn’t care less about all its bells and whistles — out it goes with the bathwater. But the baby stays.



Toddler girl being helped to walk outside by her guardians


So, with this piece, I want to help you — the parent, aunt, counselor, teacher, pediatrician — do 1 thing: nurture young children’s healthy development by helping them stay out of adult-only digital spaces until they are ready for them. And I will help you do that 1 thing by doing the following 3 things:


1| Clarify the trend of adapting adult-focused technologies for kids’ use

2| Challenge what being social on social media means

3| Share 6 important reasons, rooted in psychology, why social media use is disruptive to young children’s psycho-emotional development


{A very important note for parents whose under-13 children have been using social media already and who will read this and think: “All is lost, my child is now ruined.” A.b.s.o.l.u.t.e.l.y not. Children are nothing if not resilient, and every single decision that you feel may have been a mistake is a huge teaching point. For both of you. Please remember that, as well as the fact that repair carries so much more weight than the initial rupture. Becoming a skilled parent is all about becoming a skilled repairer}



The number one made out of metal

Children using social media is a deeply frustrating issue for me — if you couldn’t tell already — and it is a deeply complicated one too. One of the ways in which I try to simplify it, both for myself and my parent audience, is to look behind the Big Tech curtain and better understand how and why these platforms are designed, marketed and then presented to us: the users. And to clarify where the impulse to even create a children’s version of these adult-only spaces originates.



It is no random fact that the vice president of Instagram who will be overseeing the IG for Kids project also oversaw the creation of YouTube Kids. What this fact means is that this sort of thing — the decision to create a children’s version of an adult platform — has happened before. Twice actually.


They say that: “One’s a dot, two’s a line, three’s a trend.” Well, IG for Kids makes it a trend. And since we are discussing a Facebook-owned company, let’s look at Messenger Kids first.



In 2017, Facebook released Messenger Kids, apparently most popular with 6–8 year old children today. In the statement from their press release, and as part of the reason for the creation of this app, a Facebook executive said that: “Today, parents are increasingly allowing their children to use tablets and smartphones, but often have questions and concerns about how their kids use them and which apps are appropriate.” [Note the similarity between this statement and the IG Kids statement I shared with you at the beginning of this article].


Children were occupying this virtual space already, and the company (Facebook) then stepped in with an attempt at a ‘solution’ for providing more safety, protection and control for an age group that was not meant to be in that space to begin with.

In this same press release you will find the claim that: “Parents fully control the contact list and kids can’t connect with contacts that their parent does not approve,” which turned out not to be entirely true, but Facebook’s many safety and privacy flaws [oh so many] are not the central point here. The central point is that children were occupying this virtual space already, and the company then stepped in with an attempt at a ‘solution’ for providing more safety, protection and control for an age group that was not meant to be in that space to begin with. A study that Facebook conducted with the National PTA before the children’s app was launched, revealed that 81% of the 1,200 parents they had surveyed had children who started using social media between the ages of 8 and 13 (the minimum allowed age is 13).


Just to be clear, this does not mean that Facebook’s move was ‘right’ or empathic or heroic, nor does it mean that this 81% of parents — and others like them — were bad parents who didn’t care about their children. Hopefully, this article affirms both of those.


So now, let’s look to the first dot that started the trend: YouTube Kids.



YouTube Kids was released in 2015, and “designed to be a safer and simpler place for kids to explore their interests through online video,” according to its website. The uptake of the platform was not great — with an overwhelming majority of kids still spending more time on the adult version — and as late as 4 years following its release, Google (YouTube’s parent company) was ordered to pay $170 million in fines for having collected personal data on children without the knowledge of their parents (an illegal act). The complaint submitted by the FTC in 2019 revealed some pretty embarrassing (at best) information about the way in which Google actively attracted children’s companies to the adult version of YouTube by, for example, describing YouTube to children’s toys companies Mattel and Hasbro as: “the “new Saturday Morning Cartoons” and the ”#1 website regularly visited by kids.””


A smartphone showing the cartoon Peppa Pig on YouTube with a tablet next to it

If you think that the company has cleaned up its act since, you would unfortunately be wrong — congressional lawmakers have accused YouTube Kids of continuing to subtly market and advertise to kids with product placements made by “children’s influencers” and of offering a shockingly low amount of genuinely educational videos (only 4% of the videos viewed by this team of lawmakers). These claims were made as recently as April of this year.



In a recent Bloomberg article, Facebook executives were quoted as saying that “kids are using social media either way, and [we] don’t think the company has to apologize for making dedicated apps tailored to young users.” Here's the thing: the first part of that statement is 100% correct, as we saw from the Messenger Kids and YouTube Kids examples. And the second part, well, unfortunately that’s correct too.


In reality, these companies don’t have to apologize for their decisions any more than McDonalds has to apologize for having added Happy Meals to its menu back in 1979 — and McDonald’s actually lures kids into consuming fast food through the use of shiny toys, for crying out loud.


Graffiti on a wall showing Ronald McDonald playing a pipe with a line of rats following him

What we so often seem to forget is that social media companies are companies — they are businesses whose reason for existing is to make money by satisfying our basic needs for social connections, approval, belonging, and social comparisons.

What we so often seem to forget is that social media companies are companies — they are businesses whose reason for existing is to make money by satisfying our basic needs for social connections, approval, belonging, social comparisons, and others, in much the same way as McDonalds’ reason for existing is to make money by satisfying our basic needs for food and sustenance. And wherever the people are, that is where these businesses’ products will be too. Any efforts aligned with being a socially conscious brand come after this primary need is taken care of —case in point, McDonalds apparently needs until the end of 2022 to make the Happy Meal a better-balanced one with fewer artificial ingredients.


As a parent, does that put you squarely between a rock and a hard place? Absolutely.



A poster leaning against a wall with the number two on it

So, what are we as parents, teachers, community leaders, therapists and the public in general to do in order to extract ourselves from this unenviable place? Well, before I address that more directly, I want to first challenge what mainstream social media actually is, so that we can re-imagine how we as adults interact with it and how we can better relate to it moving forward.


This will help us make better decisions for our little ones, too.



I find that many of my own experiences on social media platforms are not so much “companionships” as much as people who I know [and some of whom I don’t] sharing their life not so much with me as much as at me; and honestly, I tend to do that too.

The name “social” media deceptively leads us to perceive that these platforms are enabling us to be social in the way that human beings are naturally wired to be social; the Merriam-Webster dictionary’s 1st entry for “Social” is: “involving allies or confederates,” the second: “marked by pleasant companionship with friends or associates.” Do you feel like the people you are connected to on social media are your allies…? Personally, I can say that yes, a few absolutely are, but many are not at all. And are most [let’s not even say all] your “companionships” pleasant? I find that many of my own experiences on social media platforms are not so much “companionships” as much as people who I know [and some of whom I don’t] sharing their life not so much with me as much as at me; and honestly, I tend to do that too. Because that’s how these platforms have been designed to be used.


White badges with Facebook symbols on them

Take a moment to ponder the fact that social media platforms guide us to be social in a very specific, prescribed and limited way, a way that has been determined by the design elements of each individual platform. Elements that were, for the most part, designed by a group of [a rough estimate] fewer than 10 young tech developers belonging to one gender group, one ethnic group, all based in one state, in one country in the world.



On Facebook, being social means you: use the “Like” button, comment, share, join a group, go live, and share posts that are 940 x 788px in size. On Instagram, it means much of that, but your posts are 1080 x 1080px in size instead and 1080 x 1920px in size if you share so-called “stories” that disappear in 24 hours. On LinkedIn, it means that you primarily speak about your work and professional aspirations and accomplishments. Oh, and your posts need to be 1200 x 1200px in size on this one.


These aren’t ways of being social; these are ways of following a user’s manual for a product. A product that happens to involve other people.

These aren’t ways of being social; these are ways of following a user’s manual for a product. A product that happens to involve other people. Well, sort of; more like virtual versions of them, since 71% of people augment their faces before they post them. And if you live in London, UK then you’re apparently even more likely to be interacting with augmented avatars, since 81% of the people there tend to do this.



Dr. Sherry Turkle, one of the most respected, perceptive and knowledgeable people in the responsible technology space, was recently quoted in this New York Magazine article, as saying: “Technological solutions often start out being regarded as “better than nothing” only to supplant the alternatives and come to be treated as “better than anything.””


Not using social media = not being a social human being.

Well, social media started off as not even a solution really, but rather a kind-of fun activity for college students to engage in while procrastinating. Fast forward [by not a whole lot], and it has now become synonymous with the very idea of being social. Not using social media = not being a social human being.


I am sure it comes as no surprise to you that I very strongly object to this kind of set-up. Because here’s the thing: [mis]believing in the idea of this kind of tech-dependency fuels decisions like the one to develop a children’s version of Instagram in the first place.



So, what is children’s use of social media supposed to look like, as compared to ours? Well, if you go back to the statements made by the Facebook representative you’ll see that they used the term “keep up with their friends” twice. Now, what does that mean, exactly, a 7 year-old “keeping up with their friends”? What is it that one 7 year old is doing that another 7 year old should be “keeping up with” on a regular basis? Despite my mocking tone, I would genuinely like an answer to that question. From that question [and answer] emerges a whole slew of others, like: Can a 7 year-old child be “keeping up” with their own [real] life and the [virtual] life of their friend(s), at the same time?


Are they supposed to be keeping up with their friends in the same fanatical way we [myself included] used to [and some still do] Keep up with the Kardashians…?


As a psychologist and digital wellness professional I genuinely wonder what would be best to say to a parent in a future scenario, where IG for Kids is a real thing and I am asked about the ideal balance between the time their 7 year-old child spends “keeping up” with the Karda… I mean with their friends (as well as looking for new hobbies and other online activities) vs the time they spend with their parents, their siblings, with just their own thoughts, engaged in their hobbies, reading, playing sports (and all other offline activities).


Graffiti art by artist iHart showing a young boy crying for not getting any social media reactions
"Nobody Likes Me" by iHart

Right now I am answerless, and honestly baffled by the prospect of ever being asked this question. Perhaps this next section won’t help just you but me as well, should that time ever come.



At this point, I want to take a moment to thank you for your time and your commitment to reading this article. This has been a lengthy piece because I wanted to include some of my deepest thoughts on our relationship to technology, and social media in particular. So, thank you again for being here.



A colorful birthday cake with a lit number three candle on it

I now want to tie up this long thread into a neat bow, and share with you the 6 psychology-informed reasons I think any form of social media — among the options we have available today — is a bad idea for the young developing child.


You will, by the way, find that all of these impact not just little children, but us grown-up children too.


1| Being Watched and Watching


In the mental health field, the term “hypervigilance’’ means being in a state of high alertness — essentially, being overly aware of yourself and those around you. We know that as children enter their middle-school years — but starting as early as age 5 — they become almost painfully aware of themselves, especially in relation to their peers. This is part of how we build our identity as humans and our brains are naturally wired for this process. What we want to do, however, is support children as they make their way through this process, not make it even harder for them to do so. Given that the online world never sleeps — and we already know children are losing their sleep because of it — and that we can always access it via our personal mobile devices, we run the risk of having our children’s hyper-awareness slide down the slippery slope to hyper-vigilance, by inviting them into a digital space that is exclusively designed for always watching and being watched — and making changes accordingly. More about augmentation in a second, though.


2| Constant Social Comparisons


I recently came across this idea: that lots of social comparisons with little social connection are a risk to our well-being. This is a wonderful way to put it. What naturally follows from the state of heightened awareness that I just wrote about is the question: “How do I stack up in these comparisons?” On its own, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this question and it too informs the natural process of identity-building. Pump this question with steroids, however, and you get any present-day social media platform. We overload young children with rules, dos, don’ts, shoulds and shouldn’ts as is. Adding on this layer of better-or-worse judgement that happens online — while their sense of self is still under construction — can make it incredibly hard for them to build up a stable inner core. One that they can accept and embrace without being hard on themselves for not being like the other 8 year-olds on Instagram.


3| The Currency of Self-esteem


Any child development specialist worth their salt will advise you to help shape your child’s self-esteem by praising their effort and skills, as opposed to their identity, for example: “You worked so hard on that math problem, well done!” vs “You are such a good kid/talented boy/math wiz, well done!” This not only teaches children that effort and struggle are valuable, but that internal gratification is important. And speaking of effort, something I rarely see being talked about is just how time-consuming and difficult it can be to create posts online, photos especially—not surprising, given that the whole point is to make it all look ‘natural’ and effortless. So this gives us not only this deception of perfection, but also a system through which it gets rewarded; the self-esteem currency on social media consists of views, likes, comments and shares. As with all other systems that we teach our children, the younger they are when we start teaching them the deeper they become internalized, and the harder it is to replace them later on. I know of no parent who would [consciously] want their child’s self-worth to be tied up to how many views their photo gets online; we have to do a bit of work though, to make sure that doesn’t happen.


4| Self-augmentation


Those social media filters are such fun to use, aren’t they? They certainly can be — until they’re not. We’ve now had enough concerning trends pop up around the world to know that while these filters can certainly start off as a fun and silly online activity — I have partaken myself — things can take a troubling turn when we start desiring to have those filters on permanently. A recent report revealed that plastic surgeries are on the rise (with patients becoming increasingly younger) and an interesting trend observed by plastic surgeons is that while pictures of celebrities were the gold standard about a decade ago, now it’s the heavily augmented photos of ourselves that we are showing the scalpel wielders. Young women are especially vulnerable. And so while our children are still not fully aware of (or comfortable with) their bodies and faces, we need to be mindful of how and how much they use tools that help them look unlike themselves. Fun as that may be.


5| Thinking inside the Box


I already mentioned the limiting ways in which social media platforms allow us to communicate with each other. Posting landscape photos on Instagram, for example, is out of the question, as is posting longer videos on TikTok — and by longer, I mean anything over 60 seconds (more recently, TikTok decided to expand that to 180 seconds and that was considered a really bold move). Children pick up the rules and expectations in their environment very quickly — and understand them very literally — which can be a fantastic thing when we need them to learn important (and useful) behaviors fast. The balancing act is to put in place clear and simple rules around vital skills like safety when they are little, but to then leave them (and their brains) plenty of room to develop skills like creativity, problem solving, resilience, and communication. The younger they are the less we want to box them in, and the more we want to enable them to sample from as many different activities, possibilities and approaches as possible. Why not let them snap landscape photos, and even have decent attention spans? School will inevitably build a box for them, so perhaps social media doesn’t have to build one as well.


6| Parasocial Relationships


I shared with you earlier that I often feel like we are sharing our lives at each other more so than with each other; a recent New York Times article got me wondering whether most of our relationships on social media today — whether with people we know in real life or not — have become parasocial to some degree. A parasocial relationship is defined as a one-sided relationship in which one side invests a lot of thought and energy, while the other remains blissfully unaware. This concept was coined back in the 1950s to describe our relationship with celebrities, but in 2021, we all have these with more than just famous people — sometimes, with even our own family members. Whether we are the ones creating a post — and not knowing exactly who has seen it or if it even meant anything to anyone — or we are the ones consuming a post wondering whether the post-er cares that we, plus hundreds of others, Liked it — I am urging us all to be mindful of having our children adopt this same behavioral pattern early on in life. Kids need all of the immediacy and messiness of real life friendships in order to develop vital social-emotional pathways in their brains. They’ll have plenty of para-social relationships with their favorite Disney characters anyway — best to keep their actual friendships pro-social.



A few final notes


I tend to think [very] critically about technology, and so I naturally run the risk of coming off as being against technology. I am certainly not nearly as enamored as many people are, but I am also definitely not against it. Just today, I saw one of the latest Nintendo ads on TV and it sent me way back to when I begged and pleaded with my parents — for months — to get one when I was a tween in the 90s. I could literally think of nothing else until I got it. I loved playing Mario Bros., and my mom loved playing Tetris [still does] on her Gameboy. And we would, at times, both be playing our games at the same time, each in our own little gaming nook. And that was a totally fine thing to do back then, just as it is now.


A woman with two young children sitting on a couch and engaging with a tablet

I am not saying that as families, we can’t engage with technology — either as a unit or as individuals — in ways that are fun and healthy. I am saying that during this modern-day onslaught of seamless, hyper-integrated technological devices and platforms, we need to do so mindfully and intentionally. In a way that we didn’t have to before.



When it comes to social media specifically, what I have written in this article absolutely does not mean that you, as a caregiver, should pretend that social media doesn’t exist any time your child is around or that you should shield them from your screen anytime you have an app open. Whether in your house or their friends’, your kids will hear about [and possibly experience] some form of social media at a pretty young age and it’s important to start talking to them about both the pros and cons, the pleasant and unpleasant, the benefits and harms, while they are young.


I always encourage parents to show their kids what these different platforms are like and what they have been built for. And how they can be used for informational, educational, inspirational, professional, and — yes — social purposes. I also encourage them to frame these platforms as being adult tools, and let their children know that they will gradually gain more access to them as they get older. That is what I call a ‘training wheels’ experience for children using social media — not their own version of it, as some have suggested. And I truly hope that the ideas and insights I’ve shared with you here will help your kiddos train well.



If you feel called to take action on this IG for Kids issue, you can find the petition I mentioned in the beginning of this piece here.