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Zoe Thomas: This is your Tech News Briefing for Tuesday, September 28th. I’m Zoe Thomas for the Wall Street Journal. Facebook is pausing work on Instagram Kids, a version of its platform tailored to children under 13. Questions have been raised about the impact Instagram has on the mental health of young people following a Wall Street Journal investigation. On Thursday, the Senate will hold a hearing to look at what Facebook knew about the impact it has on teens. On today’s show, our deputy tech editor, Brad Reagan joins us to discuss why Facebook is hitting the pause button and what it means for its business going forward. That’s after these headlines.
Google is working to overturn a 5 billion antitrust fine in the European Union. In 2018, authorities there found the company abused the market power of its Android operating system. Regulators concluded Google pushed manufacturers and distributors into agreements that would expand the dominance of Google search on mobile devices. Google began appealing the ruling on Monday saying the agreements help it compete against Apple. A spokeswoman for the European Commission, the block’s top antitrust regulator declined to comment.
Activision Blizzard, the publisher of Candy Crush and World of Warcraft agreed to pay $18 million as part of a settlement with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The agency was looking into allegations of sexual harassment and retaliation at the company. Activision has also agreed to install an independent observer to ensure the company is complying with the terms of the agreement.
And TikTok reached a major milestone. The video sharing app says it now has 1 billion monthly users. TikTok may be good at drawing users in, but as we’ve talked about on the show before, it sometimes drives young users toward mature content. Former executives have said the company uses algorithms and more than 10,000 people to police its platform.
All right, coming up, Instagram is pausing plans for a kid’s version. Will that help ease concerns about its impact on young users? We’ll discuss after the break. Facebook’s plan for a child friendly version of its Instagram service has been put on hold. It comes as Facebook faces growing scrutiny over the impact it has on users, especially young ones. Here’s what the head of Instagram, Adam Mosseri told the Today Show about the decision.
Adam Mosseri: I still firmly believe that it’s a good thing to build a version of Instagram that’s designed to be safe for tweens, but we want to take the time to talk to parents and researchers and safety experts, and get to more consensus about how to move forward.
Zoe Thomas: Here to discuss how Facebook got to this point and how it can move forward is our deputy tech editor, Brad Reagan. Hi Brad.
Brad Reagan: Hi.
Zoe Thomas: So Brad, before we talk about Facebook’s decision to pause Instagram Kids, I want to get us up to speed on what’s happened up to this point, and that’s a Wall Street Journal investigation which we talked about on this show before. It exposed Facebook’s own research about the impact the platform has on young people. One of the findings was that nearly one in three teenage girls said if they were feeling by bad about themselves, going on Instagram made them feel worse. How has Facebook responded to this reporting so far?
Brad Reagan: Facebook says the reason it did this research in the first place is because it was interested in these problems and interested in how its users were being affected by the platform, both positive and negative. And they would say that doing the research was just part of that process and that it shows that they’re taking these issues seriously. We published our story almost two weeks ago and the company in the last 24 hours has taken a more aggressive stance and is more directly challenging some of our conclusions, but they haven’t challenged any underlying facts at this time.
Zoe Thomas: Okay. So that’s what we know about some of the issues teenagers using Instagram were facing. But Facebook wanted to take its platform one step further when it comes to young users and create an Instagram for kids. Can you tell us what its plans were for that?
Brad Reagan: Yeah, sure. They’ve been talking for several months now about creating this product that people are calling Instagram Kids. And the idea is that you’re not supposed to be using Instagram if you’re under 13, just like you’re not supposed to be using YouTube or TikTok. But we know that kids those ages do get on cell phones, they use their parents’ accounts, or they lie about their age. And so Facebook has said that’s just the reality of the world we’re living in. And so we should create a separate product that is tailored for them that has the right kind of safety features and protections built into it so that we can have these younger users in a way kind of get their feet wet in social media. The problem is that a lot of people have very serious concerns about that plan.
Zoe Thomas: Right. And now Facebook has said it’s going to pause production on that. What reason has it given?
Brad Reagan: Well, they’ve said they want to take some time and listen to the concerns of regulators and advocacy groups and just try to build a consensus on how this product can go forward in a way that makes everybody comfortable. That’s probably going to be difficult, but the company seems pretty insistent that this is something they think is reasonable and makes sense and is important. It’ll be interesting to see as they explain it a little bit further and maybe in a little bit more detail, whether the critics can get comfortable with it.
Zoe Thomas: You mentioned other platforms are also appealing to kids and platforms like YouTube, for example, have offerings for children under 13. Why is this so hard for Facebook to come up with? Why are they the focus?
Brad Reagan: I think they’re the focus because there’s been so much controversy around Facebook for so long and a number of people feel like they can’t fully trust what the company says on some of these issues. And Facebook is just so big and so powerful. I think people have real concerns when they move forward with something like this. And also the reality of those other products. TikTok has a product for young kids, YouTube, as you mentioned. Those haven’t been widely adopted. The reality is, kids under the age of 13 continue to use the main platform. So the question is as much, what is Instagram Kids going to look like? But the bigger question is, what are we going to do about kids under the age of 13 who want to use social media? Because clearly they do.
Zoe Thomas: Right. And that’s a big question for the platform forms themselves. What does this mean for their business models? What does pausing the plans for Instagram Kids mean for Facebook’s business?
Brad Reagan: Well, that’s a little hard to say. We don’t know exactly how many users that age there are, but clearly they are under pressure from the competition for young people in general. So this is clearly important to them. They want to figure it out and the reason they want to figure it out is because the future of the business is dependent on getting young people.
Zoe Thomas: All right. So there is a Senate hearing on Thursday to discuss Facebook’s impact on mental health and children in light of these findings. And obviously I’m sure the pause of Instagram kids is going to come up, but what else are we expecting from that hearing?
Brad Reagan: It’s a little hard to predict. They’re sending their head of safety who is not a super senior executive. I think the expectation is she’s going to catch pretty heavy questioning and a lot of criticism. A lot of the lawmakers who are on that panel have already been critical of Facebook. So I think what you’re likely to see is Facebook try to explain itself a little better. Like what was this research that was done? Why was it done? What were the broader findings? I expect they will be critical of the Wall Street Journal’s coverage so far. And it’ll be interesting to see whether lawmakers find any of the company’s responses sympathetic.
Zoe Thomas: And Brad, this isn’t the only reaction that we’ve seen to the Facebook Files’ reportings. What have some of the other reactions been? Have people called out Facebook for some of the other findings?
Brad Reagan: I think these stories have struck a nerve because they’ve, in some ways, confirmed people’s worst fears about Facebook. But also I think they’ve surfaced some real serious questions about what role we want social media to play in our life. And what is the role of companies who have so much power over this product. There’ve been a lot of advocates and lawmakers and a lot of voices who have really seized on this reporting as a critical moment in time for us as a country and as a society to think about how we want to move forward on these issues. No one is suggesting that Facebook is all bad. Everyone knows social media is here to stay and Facebook’s going to be a part of our lives for a long time. I think what everyone is trying to figure out collectively is what should that look like? What should the company’s responsibilities be? What should it do with its internal research as it explores these issues? And what should the role of regulators be to require Facebook to take certain actions.
Zoe Thomas: And certainly these questions seem like they’re not just for Facebook and for social media, but for big tech generally.
Brad Reagan: I think that’s right. Facebook always tends to be a little bit more in the line of fire than most of the other companies, but definitely all these questions that are being asked of Facebook, almost all of them apply to the major social media platforms that sit on our phones and are such a big part of our lives these days.
Zoe Thomas: All right. That’s our deputy tech editor, Brad Reagan. Thanks for joining us, Brad.
Brad Reagan: Thanks Zoe.
Zoe Thomas: And that’s it for today’s Tech News Briefing. You can always find more tech stories on our website, wsj.com. And if you like our show, please rate and review it. You can do that wherever you get your podcasts. I’m Zoe Thomas for the Wall Street Journal. Thanks for listening.