Child Safety Groups Take Aim At Instagram

By David Cohen 

Facebook-owned photo-sharing network Instagram is under fire from advocates for children’s safety, with more than 4,500 signatures having been collected on a petition on that calls for Instagram to make the default settings private for users aged 13 through 17, and not geotag- and geolocation-enabled.

The Washington Post reported on the petition, at the same time sharing stories about how users under the age of 13 are able to easily sign up, regardless of the minimum age of 13.

The petition — posted to by Kristin Geiser, Mary Hofstedt, and Robin Connell — reads:

Unbelievable. That was my first thought when I clicked on the Instagram site belonging to one of my daughter’s friends and found more than a dozen pictures, some of which included my daughter, that were “public” — meaning that anyone in the world could view them at any time. Not only that, but the images were “geotagged” — associating each photograph with the exact location where it was taken. As a stranger to this site, I found my daughter’s picture, her full name, school name, grade level, and then, with one click on the map icon, I was able to view the exact location of her school, our home, and her primary after-school location. All without our knowledge or permission. This absolutely should not be happening — especially not for minors.

Currently, Instagram accounts default to “public,” meaning that all photos are able to be viewed by anyone in the world at any time — and that they will show up in various internet searches (e.g., Google images). Geotagging, or identifying the exact location where a photograph was taken, appears to be optional, but it’s often “clicked” by mistake by young users — or activated unknowingly by young users who upload photos to their Instagram site that already carry geolocation data.

The result is that the public can view the exact location where a child’s photos were taken, usually clustering at the child’s home, school, and primary after-school location (e.g., specific soccer field), which means that the child’s daily path or routine is easily identified and mapped. If the child’s account is private and geo tagged, photos are easily captured in a screen shot, then the geo tag follows the picture and is now associated with the image wherever it is pasted/posted (e.g., public accounts). This not only places the user at tremendous risk, but it places the children who are in the images or even linked to the user at risk also — and they have absolutely no control over this.

Because Instagram’s default setting is public and geo-tagged, most young users end up with public accounts — even when their parents are involved in the creation of the account, but especially when parents are not involved. Most parents I have spoken to were not aware that there was a public/private distinction on Instagram.

Even worse: When a child upgrades his/her operating software (which happens when the child is prompted to upgrade by his/her smart device), any settings previously set at private or geo-location-disabled revert to public and geo-location-enabled. In other words, children and parents who are trying to ensure some degree of privacy for their accounts are not even aware that their settings have changed to public by default with the software upgrade. No notice is sent. The child’s account silently becomes public.

As parents, we are trying to walk alongside our children and their friends as they learn to navigate social media. This takes courage and intention. While we do this, we absolutely expect that those companies shaping the social media landscape would take basic precautions to protect the identity and location of minors.

We respectfully and urgently request that Facebook/Instagram ensure that the default settings are private and NOT geotag/geolocation enabled for users who are 13 to 17 years old.

Center for Digital Democracy Director of Child Safety Joy Spencer told The Washington Post:

Facebook is not doing enough to ensure that children under 13 don’t have access to the site. That raises a number of concerns about safety, and because Instagram then is able to collect personally identifiable information on children, which can be used to target ads toward them in the future.

Facebook Manager of Privacy and Safety Nicky Jackson Colaco told the Post Instagram does not track underage users, adding:

Like many other platforms, Instagram only asks for data that is essential to operate our service.

(Instagram has) dedicated reporting channels so that people can report underage activity to us … and we will continue to invest heavily in tools and education that help people have a safe experience on our site.

The Post noted that a revision of the child privacy law, set to go into effect July 1, states that social networks and other websites must obtain consent from parents before collection personal information from users under the age of 13.

Facebook requests users’ real names, ages, and other information when they sign up for the social network, but, as the Post pointed out, the site is relying on users to voluntarily be truthful with their answers.

Readers: Should Instagram change its default privacy settings for users under 17 to private?