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Facebook’s push to protect young users is a peek at the future of social

More options, more proactive protections, fewer one-size-fits-all answers for being a person on the internet.

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Social media companies are racing to find ways to protect underage people on their apps.

Image: Alexander Shatov/Unsplash

Social media companies used to see themselves as open squares, places where everyone could be together in beautiful, skipping-arm-in-arm harmony. But that's not the vision anymore.

Now, Facebook and others are going private. They're trying to rebuild around small groups and messaging. They're also trying to figure out how to build platforms that work for everyone, that don't try to apply the same set of rules to billions of people around the world, that bring everyone together but on each user's terms. It's tricky.

The best indicator of where it's all headed? Young people. Social companies are racing to find ways to protect underage people on their apps, and much of what works for teens will likely end up rolling out to the rest of the platform.

  • Facebook announced Tuesday that new users under 16 (or 18 in some places) will have their Instagram accounts made private by default. For underage users who already have a public account, Instagram will now show a pop-up explaining how to go private. And there are more privacy settings coming, the company said.
  • It'll also be harder for "potentially suspicious accounts" to find and follow accounts run by younger users. Facebook said it's looking at signals like whether accounts have been blocked by other young users, and keeping them away from young people's accounts.
  • And advertisers will get a much less targeted look at these young users, too. They can still reach young users, but not based on their web activity or interests.
  • Facebook's still planning to build its controversial app just for kids, by the way. But it's pretty clear that it's never going to be able to keep them off the main apps entirely.

Facebook's following TikTok's lead in setting accounts private by default and in taking steps toward cordoning those users off from the rest of the platform. "We are creating an additional buffer around young people," Instagram's Karina Newton told NBC News.

It's all about options. Giving users options has been frowned upon for years. The logic was simple enough: Most people won't change their default settings anyway, so the onus is on the product to get things right automatically. More algorithms, fewer settings. Less friction! Now, people are being given more choices and more tools with which to decide their experience.

  • Defaults do still matter, though. Instagram said that in early testing, 80% of new underage users kept their accounts private, even though the "Public" button is just a tap away.
  • And on TikTok, most young users are by default sharing with their "Friends" — meaning only people they follow who follow them back — and video downloads are turned off.
  • Everybody's learning from Snapchat, too, which continues to grow like crazy in part because it's a fundamentally private experience that users create for themselves, rather than having a giant mass of people thrust at them as soon as they log in.

As ever, execution will be the challenge here. Facebook acknowledged it's still trying to figure out the right way to verify people's age — because there's not much to stop new ones from just, you know, lying — and often, by the time someone reports a rule break, it's already too late. The only option for the platforms is to be more proactive and more careful. Doing that with young users is an obvious choice, because the stakes are so high and the relative business hit fairly low, but it'll be equally important and much harder to make the same decisions for the broader user base.

But whether it was Twitter serving the "Are you sure you want to share this article you haven't read?" pop-up or some of these privacy-focused tools that let people choose who can reach or read them, the focus has clearly shifted away from building the One Perfect System to letting users build it for themselves. At the scale at which these companies operate, that's the only way it's ever going to work.

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