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Parents Say There Doesn't Need To Be A Kid-Only Instagram, Just A Kid-Friendlier One

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Social media companies ban kids under 13 from signing up because of federal privacy law. But ask any parent...

DANIELLE HAWKINS: She got on Instagram and Snapchat without my approval when she was about 12.

TITANIA JORDAN: They have Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok.

BLYTHE WINSLOW: My 11-year-old has been gunning for social media probably since she was 8 or 9 years old.

CORNISH: Now Facebook, which owns Instagram, says it has a solution for underage kids. NPR's Shannon Bond has more on this story. And a quick note before we begin - Facebook and TikTok are among NPR's financial supporters.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Here's how Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg explained the problem at a congressional hearing in March.

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MARK ZUCKERBERG: There is clearly a large number of people under the age of 13 who would want to use a service like Instagram. We currently do not allow them to do that.

BOND: His solution - Instagram Youth, a version of the app just for kids with extra parental controls. So far, it's just an idea Facebook's working on, but it's getting a lot of attention. Parents say Zuckerberg is right. Kids are going on social media despite these apps' age limits.

CHARITY WHITE-VOTH: I was the last holdout of her friends' parents around Snapchat.

BOND: For Charity White-Voth in San Diego, the struggle began long before her daughter's 13th birthday.

WHITE-VOTH: And, you know, she said, mom, all my friends. Well really, she was not joking. Like, they were on it, and they were using it. And I was like, I just don't feel comfortable. I don't think it's the right thing to do. So I held out for a long time, I think until she was just 13.

BOND: She still worries her daughter is too young to appreciate the consequences of sharing on these apps - that things posted online are on the internet forever. Another big worry for many parents - the focus on likes, followers and selfies, especially on visual platforms like Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat. Danielle Hawkins, a mom who lives near Detroit, says it just makes existing problems worse.

HAWKINS: Body image, who you are, how accepted you are is a very big part of becoming a teenager.

BOND: Her oldest daughter started using Instagram and Snapchat last year at 12, but she's not allowed to anymore. Blythe Winslow says those worries are grounded in research. She's a mom of two tween girls in Cincinnati and co-founder of everyschool.org, a nonprofit that advises schools on how to use technology.

WINSLOW: You know, kids have more anxiety and depression. Empathy is on the decline. Creativity is on the decline. Suicide rates in kids ages 10 to 14 has tripled. Parents fear that social media might be linked to a lot of those problems.

BOND: And those fears are fueling a backlash to Facebook. Child safety advocates, members of Congress and 44 attorneys general want it to scrap Instagram Youth. They cite worries about online predators, links to depression and body image concerns. And they say Facebook just doesn't have a good track record when it comes to privacy and protecting users. Jim Steyer heads the advocacy group Common Sense Media.

JIM STEYER: We see this as Facebook doing the classic brand marketing approach, which is hook kids as early as possible. One, you get their loyalty from cradle to grave, and two, if you're lucky, you get their parents to come with them.

BOND: Facebook says safety and privacy come first. It's working with experts to develop Instagram Youth. Some parents told NPR they would be interested in letting their kids use a version of the app with more limited content and the ability to monitor what they're up to. But San Diego dad Buyung Santoso says his kids, age 11 and 13, wouldn't go for that.

BUYUNG SANTOSO: In fact, my daughter says that she didn't think that it was going to work because kids can do whatever they want, regardless of, you know, whether you need permission or not.

BOND: Critics say instead of creating new apps for children, tech companies should concentrate on making their existing products safer for the kids they know are on there right now. Titania Jordan works at Atlanta software company Bark, which helps parents monitor their kids' online activity. And she's mom to a 12-year-old son who loves TikTok and Snapchat.

JORDAN: We're not asking social media to parent our kids. It's not their job. Just don't make our job harder.

BOND: For now, Facebook has not given a timeline for if or when it plans to roll out Instagram Youth.

Shannon Bond, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.