Instagram internal documents reveal fear of losing teens, report says


Sarah Tew/CNET

Facebook-owned Instagram worried about losing teenage users and designated a large chunk of its marketing budget for touting the service to teens, The New York Times reported Saturday, citing internal documents and anonymous sources. The news comes after a whistleblower leaked documents to The Wall Street Journal that showed Facebook knew about the potential for Instagram to harm the mental health of teens.

“If we lose the teen foothold in the U.S. we lose the pipeline,” says an internal Instagram memo from last October, which presents a marketing strategy for this year, the Times’ Saturday report said.

Beginning in 2018, nearly all Instagram’s annual worldwide marketing budget was slated for messaging aimed at teens, the Times said, noting that this year’s budget is $390 million. Marketers told the publication that zeroing in on a particular age group to that extent is unusual. The Times said the final spending also included messaging aimed at parents and young adults. Instagram faces competition for teen users from rivals like TikTok and Snapchat.

Facebook and Instagram are in the hot seat regarding younger users after Frances Haugen, a former Facebook product engineer, leaked documents to the Journal, which reported last month that Facebook researchers had found Instagram is “harmful for a sizable percentage” of young users, particularly teenage girls. Depression, anxiety and body-image issues were areas of concern, the Journal said in its report. Haugen also testified before Congress this month, alleging that Facebook’s products “harm children, stoke division and weaken our democracy.”

Facebook has said the purpose and results of its research on Instagram are being mischaracterized and that the research actually showed that teenagers saw benefits from using the site. Many teens, Facebook has said, told researchers that Instagram can help them “when they are struggling with the kinds of hard moments and issues teenagers have always faced.”

A Facebook spokesperson downplayed the Times report Saturday. “While it’s not true that we focus our entire marketing budget towards teens, we’ve said many times that teens are one of our most important communities because they spot and set early trends. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that they are a part of our marketing strategy.”

Last month, Instagram paused development of Instagram Kids, a dedicated service it’s building for children under 13, who currently aren’t allowed on the existing Instagram site. The company has said the service won’t be designed like the adult version of the app but will be ad-free and overseen directly by parents. Regardless of such assurances, news of the Instagram Kids project has alarmed critics concerned about the mental well-being and privacy of younger users. The 1998 Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act restricts collecting or storing personal data on anyone under 13.

In its Saturday report, the Times said Facebook was aware that an advertisement aimed at a 13-year-old would probably also grab younger kids wanting to be like their older siblings and friends. The publication cited an unnamed source who said managers told workers that Facebook does what it can to stop underage users from signing up for Instagram but that they join anyway.

Instagram head Adam Mosseri has said that he still thinks building Instagram Kids is “the right thing to do” because kids are already online and misrepresenting their age to access the service.

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