TOULOUSE, France: This file photo shows logos of US social networks Facebook and Instagram on the screens of a tablet and a mobile phone. - AFP

NEW YORK: Facebook said yesterday that it is suspending development of a version of its Instagram photo-sharing app for children aged under 13, after widespread criticism of the plan. The decision to pause the kids' app comes as Facebook grapples with the fallout of a series of withering Wall Street Journal reports revealing that the company's own research showed it was aware of the damage Instagram can do to teenage girls' mental health.

Facebook's announcement comes just days ahead of a hearing before US senators that was set up in response to outrage that followed the Journal series. Instagram chief Adam Mosseri complained that the project aimed at children, which would have created a parentally-supervised version of the app for youngsters, had been widely misunderstood.

"We started this project to address an important problem seen across our industry: kids are getting phones younger and younger, misrepresenting their age, and downloading apps that are meant for those 13 or older," he said in a statement. "We firmly believe that it's better for parents to have the option to give their children access to a version of Instagram that is designed for them -- where parents can supervise and control their experience -- than relying on an app's ability to verify the age of kids who are too young to have an ID," he added. "While we stand by the need to develop this experience, we've decided to pause this project."

'Toxic effects on young people'

The suspension of the project's rollout would give Instagram "time to work with parents, experts, policymakers and regulators, to listen to their concerns, and to demonstrate the value and importance of this project for younger teens online today", Mosseri said. Widely referred to by the unofficial name "Instagram Kids", the initiative has attracted criticism from various groups since reports of its development emerged earlier this year. In May, a group of US senators wrote to Facebook urging the social media giant to halt its rollout, accusing it of a "clear record of failing to protect children on its platforms".

Following the Journal revelations regarding potential harms linked to Facebook platforms, senators Marsha Blackburn and Richard Blumenthal announced a hearing focused in the question of protecting children on social media. "This hearing will examine the toxic effects of Facebook and Instagram on young people and others, and is one of several that will ask tough questions about whether Big Tech companies are knowingly harming people and concealing that knowledge," Blumenthal wrote in a statement last week.

Facebook has confirmed that Antigone Davis, its global head of safety, will testify at the hearing. The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood has meanwhile attacked Instagram's "relentless focus on appearance", arguing that "younger children are even less developmentally equipped to deal with these challenges" than adolescents. Facebook has hit back at the Wall Street Journal's characterization of the internal research, stressing that the studies detailed both positive and negative experiences of social media by young people. - AFP