New Instagram feature to restrict messaging between adults and teens

Technology | Bailey Aldridge 22 Mar 2021

Instagram is rolling out a feature that will bar adults from messaging teens who don't follow them.

The feature is one of the new safety measures the platform is installing in an effort to protect minors who use the photo-sharing app, Instagram said.

Other updates include tools for parents, safety notices for teens and potential changes in the way the platform understands a user's age.

Under the changes, adults who try to send a direct message to users under age 18 who don't follow them will "receive a notification that DMing them isn't an option," Instagram said.

The feature uses "machine learning technology" to predict users' ages, "and the age people give us when they sign up," according to the company.

Instagram, which has roughly 1 billion users worldwide, requires people to be at least 13 to sign up. But some lie about their age.

"We want to do more to stop this from happening, but verifying people's age online is complex and something many in our industry are grappling with," the company said. "To address this challenge, we're developing new artificial intelligence and machine learning technology to help us keep teens safer and apply new age-appropriate features."

The app will also send "safety notices" to teens to be cautious when talking to adults. The notices will alert teens when an adult who has been "exhibiting potentially suspicious behavior" is interacting with them. "For example," it said, "if an adult is sending a lot of friend or message requests to people under 18, we'll use this tool to alert the recipients within their DMs and give them an option to end the conversation, or block, report, or restrict the adult."

Instagram says it will also look into ways to prevent adults "exhibiting potentially suspicious behavior" from finding teens on the platform.

"This may include things like restricting these adults from seeing teen accounts in Suggested Users, preventing them from discovering teen content in Reels or Explore and automatically hiding their comments on public posts by teens," Instagram said.

Another feature will encourage users under 18 to make their accounts private. Teens who choose to have a public account will later get a notification "highlighting the benefits of a private account and reminding them to check their settings."

Instagram has also published a new guide for parents. "It includes the latest safety tools and privacy settings, as well as a list of tips and conversation starters to help parents navigate discussions with their teens about their online presence," the company said in the news release.

Instagram's updates come as some authorities have warned that children face an increased risk of being targeted online during the pandemic.

There were 30,236 reports of "online enticement" lodged with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children from January to September 2020 - nearly double that in the same time period in 2019.

Lindsey Olson, executive director of the center's Exploited Child Division, told The Washington Post in February that the pandemic has created "more opportunity" for enticement. "More kids are online," Olson said. "More offenders are online."

Instagram said the changes are "just a first step." "We're assessing additional measures we can take to protect young people on Instagram, including additional privacy settings."

The News & Observer (TNS)

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