In a move that will surprise people who thought they were already doing it, Instagram has announced that it is to start asking for the date of birth of anybody signing up to use it from this month onward. The company – which is owned by social media giant Facebook – says that the new requirement is designed to ensure that users enjoy an ‘age-appropriate experience’ when they’re on the site – but some commentators have suggested that their real motivation might be to allow advertisers to target users with greater accuracy.
The move, which was announced on Wednesday, December 4th, is a step forward from Instagram’s current policy on collecting age data, which only requires users to confirm that they’re above the age of 13. The company has faced criticism in the past because although it nominally requires users to be above that age, it undertakes no verification process to ensure that children aren’t misrepresenting their age in order to gain access to the website. At present, there are no plans to display the age of users on their profiles. That would be a different approach to the one taken by parent company Facebook, which automatically displays age data unless users opt out of doing so.
Instagram has faced fierce criticism in the past about its policy on advertising and sponsored content, including the accusation that it doesn’t do enough to help users identify when content has been sponsored instead of appearing organically. So-called ‘influencers’ on the platform have been singled out within the general criticism, as they often accept product sponsorships that aren’t easily identified as paid promotion. This is not, however, the type of content that Instagram claims to want to make people safe from with their change in policy.
Although there are some forms of adult-orientated advertising that Instagram won’t engage with at all, plenty of adult entertainment is marketed on the website. Online gambling companies are known to be big payers when it comes to social media marketing. There is a proliferation of online slots companies who use Instagram to advertise to potential customers, and therein lies at least part of the problem. Online slots site like Roseslots.com are for adults only. The companies who make online slots have no desire to market to minors (and can get in regulatory trouble for doing so), and so being able to filter younger users out keeps them on the right side of the law, and also means that their advertising spend isn’t being wasted on an audience who can’t buy their product. The same is also true of alcohol companies, who also spend big on social media marketing.
By identifying the age of their customers, Instagram says that they’ll be able to tailor content to their audience in a safer and more responsible manner. They also hope to follow up on the new initiative by creating a default set of privacy settings for younger users, which will be different from the default privacy settings that come with adult accounts. At this early stage, it’s unknown what the specifics of the child-focused privacy settings might be, or what kind of content might be filtered out by them.
Although any move to make a large social media platform more child-friendly and safer to use should be welcomed, there is a debate to be had over how many people on the platform will be affected. That’s because although Instagram will be asking brand new users for their date of birth, they won’t be asking their existing users for the same information. As the platform already has more than one billion users, it’s unclear how many more people can realistically be expected to sign up. The majority of people who want an Instagram account probably already have one, and the percentage of all users who will be affected by the change in policy is likely to be far less than one percent. It will take several years for that figure to go any higher.
It may be the case that Instagram tries to go back and verify its younger users at a later date. In an interview conducted at the same time the new policy was announced, Head of Product Vishal Shah said that existing young users would be ‘encouraged’ to amend their privacy settings over the weeks to come. As there doesn’t appear to be an obvious way of knowing how many young uses Instagram has, how they plan to implement that idea remains to be seen.
Analyzing the announcement for the BBC, correspondent Roy Cellan-Jones felt that there might be a more cynical motive to the change of policy. Without any means of verifying that users are telling the truth about their age when they’re signing up, it’s impossible to say that there will be any benefit whatsoever in terms of protection. It could even motivate younger users to pretend to be older in order to gain access to adult content. What it could do, however, is allow Instagram to offer a ‘hands clean’ advertising opportunity to companies who want to market to adult users. If Instagram has nominally verified that all the people who are likely to see an advert are old enough to buy a product, it’s harder to accuse either them or the advertisers of marketing directly to children or minors. If the company can target users with more confidence, it can broaden its advertising strategy – and possibly charge more to people who want to ensure that they’re reaching adults.
It may eventually turn out that Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are soon forced to do more when it comes to verifying the identity of the people using their services regardless. We live in an age of anonymous online trolls, cyber-bullying, and easily accessible adult content. In almost every civilized country, legislation has either been proposed or enacted that will compel companies to do more to protect young and vulnerable internet users from seeing things they simply shouldn’t see online. Instagram might have taken a small step forward when it comes to getting to know their users better, but the full force of the law may require them to do a lot more than that during the 2020s.