Instagram is done playing dumb about users' ages. After nine years, Instagram is finally embracing more responsibility to protect underage kids from the problems with social media. It will now ask new users to input their birth date and bar users younger than 13 from joining. However, it won't be asking existing users their age, so Instagram will turn a blind eye to any underage kids already amongst its 1 billion members.
Instagram will later start using age info to offer education about settings and new privacy controls for younger users. It's also adding the option to only allow people you follow to message you, add you to a group or reply to your Story.
Yesterday we published an opinion piece noting that "Instagram still doesn't age-check kids. That must change." after receiving no-comments from Instagram after mobile researcher Jane Manchun Wong spotted Instagram prototyping an age-check feature. As the code she found indicated, Instagram will keep your birthday and date private, and sync it with your Facebook profile if you link your accounts.
Instagram had fallen far behind in protecting underage users. It's relied on ignorance about users' ages to avoid a $40,000 fine per violation of the Child Online Privacy Protection Act that bans services from collecting personal info from children younger than 13. "Asking for this information will help prevent underage people from joining Instagram, help us keep young people safer and enable more age-appropriate experiences overall," Instagram notes.
Facebook, Snapchat and TikTok already require users to enter their birth date as soon as they start the signup process. TikTok built a whole separate section of its app where kids can watch videos but not post or comment, after it was fined $5.7 million by the FTC for violating COPPA.
As for why it took so long, an Instagram spokesperson tells TechCrunch, "Historically, we didn’t require people to tell us their age because we wanted Instagram to be a place where everyone can express themselves fully -- irrespective of their identity." That seems like a pretty thin excuse.
Adding the age check is a good first step for Instagram. But it should consider how it can do more to verify the ages users enter and keep out those who don't belong exposed to strangers across the app. Moving in line with industry standards is attaining minimum viable responsibility. But an app so appealing to younger users and that deals in such sensitive data should be leading on safety, not just following the herd.