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Instagram sparks new concerns over 'kidfluencer' culture

Instagram sparks new concerns over 'kidfluencer' culture
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Facebook’s plans to create an Instagram for kids are fueling new calls to crack down on digital advertising targeting children.

Experts say that while YouTube has largely been the main vehicle for influencer marketing aimed at children, with videos from so-called kidfluencers garnering millions of views, plans for a kid-centered Instagram platform are sparking backlash from lawmakers and advocates who view influencer marketing as a deceptive tactic to reach kids.

“Influencer culture rules supreme on Instagram,” said Josh Golin, executive director of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC).

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“To indoctrinate children into a platform that is just all about appearance, and what you own, and perfecting yourself based on what digitally altered, influencers are telling you you need to be happy and fulfilled.”

The CCFC, along with roughly 99 other advocacy organizations and experts, sent a letter to Facebook CEO Mark ZuckerbergMark Elliot ZuckerbergBipartisan attorneys general urge Facebook to scrap planned Instagram for kids Hillicon Valley: Broadband companies funded fake net neutrality comments, investigation finds | Twitter rolls out tip feature | Google to adopt 'hybrid work week' Oversight Board achieving what government cannot MORE on Thursday urging the platform to cancel plans for an Instagram for kids.

The letter states that the app “subjects its users to intense commercial pressure, which is particularly unfair to developing children.”

It follows a similar letter congressional Democrats sent to Zuckerberg last week on his plans for the app, and one Rep. Raja KrishnamoorthiSubramanian (Raja) Raja KrishnamoorthiMedical supplies arriving in India amid surge in COVID-19 infections Overnight Health Care: US to share millions of AstraZeneca vaccine doses with other countries | Biden speaks with Prime Minister Modi as COVID-19 surges in India US to share millions of AstraZeneca vaccine doses with other countries MORE (D-Ill.), chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy, sent to YouTube last week pressing the company on its children’s advertising policies.

Republicans also questioned the CEOs of Facebook and YouTube’s parent company, Google, on policies regarding children’s advertising during a hearing last month before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The proposal that most directly addresses concerns on digital advertising for children is the KIDS Act, sponsored by Sens. Ed MarkeyEd MarkeySenators ask airlines to offer cash refunds for unused flight credits Civilian Climate Corps can help stem rural-urban divide Senate votes to nix Trump rule limiting methane regulation MORE (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). A spokesperson for Markey said the senator plans to reintroduce the bill this Congress.

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The measure would prohibit websites from recommending content that includes influencer marketing, such as unboxing videos, to children and young teens. Other features of the bill include banning “auto-play” settings that can lead to prolonged viewing sessions and prohibiting websites from exposing children to marketing with embedded interactive elements.

“Facebook’s ill-conceived plans for Instagram for Kids would only add to this growing problem created by Big Tech’s pattern of neglect and disregard of children’s welfare,” Blumenthal said in a statement.

“The KIDS Act is one potential legislative solution, but more work lies ahead in my Consumer Protection Subcommittee to take on this pervasive problem,” he added.

The bills did not garner any Republican support when they were introduced last year. But given the recent pressure on social media companies, Common Sense Media CEO Jim Steyer said he is “very optimistic” that bipartisan solutions will emerge this year.

Rep. Kathy CastorKatherine (Kathy) Anne CastorHillicon Valley: Tech companies duke it out at Senate hearing | Seven House Republicans vow to reject donations from Big Tech Markey, Castor urge FTC to investigate Google Play Store Lawmakers react to guilty verdict in Chauvin murder trial: 'Our work is far from done' MORE (D-Fla.), who is planning to reintroduce the KIDS Act companion bill in the House, said she was “heartened” by the bipartisan concern voiced at the recent Energy and Commerce hearing.

“Many of the folks on the committee are parents themselves, or grandparents, and they have watched the evolution of technology over time,” Castor told The Hill.

Asked if he would support Markey’s proposal, a spokesperson for Sen. Roger WickerRoger Frederick WickerBiden says he and GOP both 'sincere about' seeking infrastructure compromise The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden expresses optimism on bipartisanship; Cheney ousted Hillicon Valley: Global cybersecurity leaders say they feel unprepared for attack | Senate Commerce Committee advances Biden's FTC nominee Lina Khan | Senate panel approves bill that would invest billions in tech MORE (R-Miss.), ranking member on the Senate Commerce Committee, said the senator is interested in exploring ways to protect children and adults from unfair practices in the digital economy.

Facebook has said the kids app will help combat issues of children under 13 using the main Instagram platform, despite the platform’s policy prohibiting anyone 12 or under using the site.

In Thursday’s letter to Facebook, advocates argued that kids around the ages of 10 and 12 will likely not switch to a “babyish” version of the platform, meaning the “true audience” for the new version will be “much younger children” who don’t have existing Instagram accounts.

Stephanie Otway, a Facebook spokesperson, said the company “will not show ads in any Instagram experience” it develops for kids. She said the company doesn’t have more specifics to share about ad policies as it is in the “early days” of exploring the platform.

A spokesperson for YouTube said, “We continue to heavily invest in the YouTube and YouTube Kids experiences for kids and families, to better align with or even exceed the advertising industry’s best practices.”

The spokesperson added that the platform requires paid promotional content to be disclosed, and paid promotional content is prohibited on YouTube Kids.

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The root of the issue is children’s vulnerability to the marketing tactics, according to guidance on combating digital advertising for kids released by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) in June.

Children under the age of 6 have a hard time identifying ads, according to the AAP. For example, kids in this age group may be unable to even identify that an unboxing video — a popular YouTube trend where merchandise often supplied by the company is opened on camera — is a form of advertising.

The group says children ages 7 to 13 can identify ads with the help of an adult, but they cannot critically think about persuasive intent.

Although teenagers are more savvy about identifying marketing, the AAP says teens still struggle.

“It’s really hard to change behavior. And likewise, when you’re being fed something that’s really clearly tailored to you, that’s designed to get you interested, engaged and to keep you clicking basically, to buy more things, it’s incredibly hard to resist. Even if you know that’s what’s happening to you,” said Nusheen Ameenuddin, chair of the AAP Council on Communications and Media.

The videos aimed at kids on YouTube are rife with explicit ads and consumerist content, according to a report released by Common Sense and the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in November.

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The report analyzed 1,639 YouTube videos watched by children 8 and younger during a one-week period last year and found that advertising occurred in 95 percent of early childhood videos. Moreover, the report found 45 percent of videos viewed by children 8 and under featured or promoted products for children to buy.

Some videos included disclosures that products were sponsored by companies through a brief voiceover or written disclosure, according to the report.

Golin said those disclosures are largely meaningless in helping children defend against advertising.

“Children don’t understand what a disclosure is, and in fact, if you look at the kinds of disclosures that they have in these videos, they’re a joke,” he said.

“There is no way that a 6-year-old is going to get from ‘Thank you Target for the toys’ to ‘This person is making this video because they have a deal with Target and the things that they’re saying I should discount,’” Golin added.

Ameenuddin said parents have been shouldering the burden of trying to combat the deceptive marketing practices for too long.

“With this very unfair playing field with tech companies having multiple ways to keep kids engaged, we really do need to look to our legislators to create ways to protect kids from this targeting and information gathering, because it’s just not OK to target kids,” she said.