Social media platform Instagram has altered various settings specifically targeted at keeping its young users safer from unwanted content and potentially dangerous people.
As part of its efforts to keep young people safe, it has also developed an algorithm to detect accounts that have shown potentially suspicious behaviour and stop those accounts from interacting with young people’s accounts, the company announced in a blog post on Tuesday.
"Instagram’s strategy to proactively weed out potential predators is a welcome innovation; teens have a right to explore their social selves freely without having to worry about predators lurking in the shadows," Janice Richardson, an international expert on digital literacy, children's rights and their online wellbeing and expert to the Council of Europe.
Since 2018, the law in Belgium stipulates that young people have to be 13 years of age to create a profile on social media.
As of April 2021, 7.5% of people aged between 13 and 17 globally had an Instagram account, whilst a recent study found that in Belgium, 45.4% of internet users between the ages of 13 and 16 used Instagram, compared to 37% at the end of 2019.
What is Instagram doing to protect these younger users?
Pushing for private
One of the most significant changes made to protect young users is that, by default, users under the age of 16 signing up for a new account will by default be switched to a private account when they sign up, meaning only approved followers will be able to see what pictures or clips are posted.
"Historically, we asked young people to choose between a public account or a private account when they signed up for Instagram, but our recent research showed that they appreciate a more private experience," the company wrote, citing the results of a test phase, during which eight out of ten young people accepted the private default settings during sign-up.
Meanwhile, those already signed up will receive a notification highlighting the benefits of a private account and explaining how to change their privacy settings.
It also means that strangers or unwanted profiles won't be able to send them direct messages.
However, Instagram stressed that it recognises "some young creators might want to have public accounts to build a following", and will still "give young people the choice to switch to a public account or keep their current account public if they wish."
Keeping (potentially dangerous) strangers away
The company has also developed a new technology that will allow it to more efficiently detect potentially suspicious behaviour - "accounts belonging to adults that may have recently been blocked or reported by a young person" - meaning young people’s accounts will not show up in any way for these adults.
Even if explicitly looking for young people's accounts, the option to follow them will be disabled for these flagged accounts.
"Using machine learning to understand when it might not be appropriate for an adult to interact with a teen puts teens in the driver’s seat as far as who they interact with is a very important step to take," Larry Magid, CEO, ConnectSafely, a nonprofit that educates people about safety, privacy and security online, said.
Finally, the last change made by the company doesn't target users but focuses on advertisers who use the platform to promote their products and will restrict them to placing targeted ads based on the teen’s age, gender, and location, rather than allowing all content.
Instagram previously allowed users to indicate that they would rather not see ads based on their interests or on their activities on other websites and apps, but research showed that young people may not be well equipped to make these decisions, which is why it is taking a more precautionary approach.
In October last year, Ireland's Data Protection Commissioner (DPC) investigated the social media platform over its handling of children's personal data on the platform, as it allegedly allowed email addresses and phone numbers of those under 18 to be made public.
When users turn 18, they will receive a notification about targeting options that advertisers can start to use to reach them and the tools the company provides to them to control their ad experience.
The changes will be rolled out in the US, Australia, France, the UK and Japan to start with, and will later be expanded to more countries.