Faith leaders denounce Zuckerberg's Instagram-for-children scheme
Mark Zuckerberg (AFP)

Saying that "children's wellbeing must come first" above profit, dozens of faith leaders on Tuesday told Facebook chief Mark Zuckeberg to permanently end any plans for a version of the photo- and video-sharing app Instagram for kids under 13.

"Childhood should be all movement, play, messiness, and wriggle—life-affirming against the sleek, flat, rapacious world of screens."

Following public outcry, Instagram—owned by Facebook parent company Meta—announced in September a pause on plans for a version of the platform specifically for kids. But, the faith leaders wrote in their letter, "a pause is not enough. Instagram poses a danger to young children, as your own research indicates."

The letter was led by the child advocacy group Fairplay and includes signatories representing more than 20 faiths and denominations, who "assert that social media platforms that target immature brains, practice unethical data mining, and are inspired by profit motives are not a tool for the greater good of children."

Democratic lawmakers, state attorneys general, and child advocates including Fairplay have previously written to Zuckerberg encouraging him to ditch the plans, citing potential adverse harm to kids. Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen also warned senators last year that the social media company knows its "products harm children" but is too driven by profit to change direction.

The faith coalition references those concerns but focuses on what impacts the proposal has on children's spiritual health, which affect "their total wellbeing and the welfare of our communities."

Those impacts include social media's disruptions to needed stillness, the faith leaders argue.

"Children, with growing minds and bodies, need this time for reflection, unprompted encounters, and mindful, attentive play," the group wrote. Such play is all the better in nature, but "impersonal, impassive screens" can rob children of "the joy of this natural awe and wonder," the letter states.

Social media use by youth also threatens "unitive consciousness and empathetic understanding that spiritual paths promote," as "algorithms shuffle users into boxes and ideological echo chambers, inflaming a harmful 'us vs. them' mentality that is incompatible with selfless love. "

"To continue moving in this direction, knowing full well the ill effects of Instagram's algorithms, is nothing more than the raw pursuit of profit at the expense of society's most vulnerable population. "

"Children should not be taught to place people into categories, fighting outrage with outrage online." In contrast, the faith group wrote, "the path to peace is through patient dialogue, attentive listening, and intentional understanding—ideally in person"

The letter also calls out "Instagram culture [which] is one of constant comparison." It notes that "countless religious traditions insist that we are already enough as we are—a radical, unprofitable assertion that actively counteracts consumeristic values."

Among the noted religious figures cited in the letter is the late Thích Nhất Hạnh, the Buddhist monk who died last month. The faith leaders point to his words in his 2008 work The Art of Power: "If you crave acceptance and recognition and try to change yourself to fit what other people want you to be, you will suffer all your life. True happiness and true power lie in understanding yourself, accepting yourself, having confidence in yourself."

Instagram Kids stands to "serve as a catalytic gateway for young children to the already-documented problems adversely impacting teens, as well as a vast array of unforeseen issues as commercial culture further encroaches on the sanctity of childhood," according to the letter.

"All children and their families deserve to have a safe space to explore their spiritual selves, should they choose to do so," the letter adds. "And childhood should be all movement, play, messiness, and wriggle—life-affirming against the sleek, flat, rapacious world of screens."

One of the signatories, Dr. Kutter Callaway, an associate professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, suggested Facebook's continued willingness to consider Instagram for kids in light of the company's already sky-high profits was particularly egregious.

“As both a father of three young daughters and a psychological scientist, I cannot emphasize enough my desire to see Meta cease from creating a platform that their own data has shown will cause irreparable psychological, social, and spiritual damage to young people," he said in a statement.

"To continue moving in this direction, knowing full well the ill effects of Instagram's algorithms," said Callaway, "is nothing more than the raw pursuit of profit at the expense of society's most vulnerable population. If a net worth of $1 trillion is not enough, no amount will ever be.”

The letter was sent on Safer Internet Day, a campaign started in the E.U. and supported in the U.S. by internet giants including Meta, Google, and others.