Instagram being investigated over handling of children's data

Last updated at 15:20
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The European Union is looking into how Instagram has used personal data belonging to children.

The investigation is led by Ireland's Data Protection Commissioner (DPC) and is due to complaints that Instagram made contact information, such as phone numbers and email addresses, publicly visible for people who had chosen a business account.

In February 2019, it is estimated that at least 60 million users under the age of 18 were given the option to easily change their profiles into business accounts.

Instagram business accounts require users to display their phone numbers and email addresses publicly, meaning that personal data belonging to many users is visible publicly.

Instagram is owned by Facebook, who could face a large fine if the social media app is found to have broken privacy laws.

The DPC is responsible for protecting people's right to online privacy, and has the power to issue large fines.

Some people think it's another example of social media companies not taking the responsibility of protecting their young users seriously.

Facebook said it rejected the claims but was cooperating with the investigation.

Other issues with Instagram

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WATCH: Do you REALLY read the terms and conditions?
Terms and conditions

When you sign up to a social media account you have to tick a box to say you agree to their Terms and Conditions.

That means you're signing up to a strict set of rules. For example, they might say that you have to be a certain age to have an account, or that the company is allowed to use any pictures you post however they like.

Instagram's terms are made up of thousands of words. Terms like licence, liability, disclaimer and copyright are just some of the words that feature heavily.

The list of rules can be extremely long and complicated - and written in technical language - which can make them difficult to understand. This means that many people may not know what they've actually agreed to.

It is important to make sure you understand what you are agreeing to so that you know exactly what you've signed up for.

You don't want to get a nasty shock later because you didn't fully understand something that you'd agreed to a while ago.

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To have a social media account, you will have to agree to certain terms and conditions

Instagram has been criticised for not doing enough to stop online bullying on the platform and some say that social media has even helped promote bullying and other issues online.

In 2019, the UK's Parliament's Science and Technology Committee called for a new organisation to be created to watch over social media companies and said social media companies should have a formal, legal "duty of care" over their users. That means they should have rules in place to protect users' safety and well-being.

In May 2020, Instagram brought in some new features in an attempt to stop cyber bullies.

Users of the social media site will now be able to delete comments in bulk and block or restrict multiple accounts at the same time.

Previously, users could only delete and block one account at once, making it easier for online trolls to post frequently under pictures.

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WATCH: How algorithms reward behave bad behaviour online.

Due to the sheer number of people who use the site - thought to be over 1 billion worldwide - Instagram is heavily reliant on users reporting bullying in order for it to take action.

It's other anti-bullying features include a warning to users when they're about to post "potentially offensive" captions for photos or a video.

It also uses special Artificial Intelligence software to filter out any words which it deems to be offensive.

Body image
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Social media apps can make people feel insecure about themselves. Filters and body-editing apps have led to unrealistic standards of beauty online.

In 2018 Newsround spoke to a number of boys in year nine and all of them told us that they feel pressure from social media to look a certain way.

Research from the Mental Health Foundation from 2019 found that a quarter of girls and one in ten boys aged 13 to 19 had edited photos of themselves to change their face or body shape because of concerns about body image.

Mental health experts want tech companies to follow specific guidelines and think about the health harms that their products could have.

Unclear advertising
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Whether it's clothing, footwear, food or drinks - there's big money to be made in online ads. They have been proven to make celebrities and influencers very rich and sometimes it's hard to tell what is and isn't an advert - which can be misleading.

Celebrities like Kylie Jenner can make more than £750,000 per post on social media.

In 2019, Zoella and other social media stars agreed to change how they post online, to make it clear that that they have been paid or received any gifts or loans for products they use for advertising purposes.

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Andrea Coscelli, chief executive of the Competition and Markets Authority, said: "Influencers can have a huge impact on what their fans decide to buy. People could, quite rightly, feel misled if what they thought was a recommendation from someone they admired turns out to be a marketing ploy.

"You should be able to tell as soon as you look at a post if there is some form of payment or reward involved, so you can decide whether something is really worth spending your hard-earned money on."

Some celebrities do use hashtags such as #ad or #sponsored to indicate that they have been paid to post content.

In August 2020 a report by Girlguiding found that 43% of girls aged 11 - 16 had seen adverts online that made them feel pressured to look different.

Meanwhile, 64% of those asked thought that diet products and weight loss clubs shouldn't be advertised to children under the age of 18.

Lack of support for under 13s
Instagram.Getty Images

To create an Instagram account you have to be over thirteen. However one of the key issues is that Instagram does very little to police this which means children under thirteen are using the platform.

Any under thirteen's who have an account and experience any problems can't report it or their account will be closed because they are under thirteen. Which means it's not in a kid's interest to report problems.

What's being done about it?
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In February 2020 it was announced that media regulator Ofcom is getting new powers to make sure companies protect both adults and children from harmful content online.

Harmful content refers to things like violence, terrorism, cyber-bullying and child abuse.

The new rules will likely apply to Facebook - who also own Instagram and WhatsApp - Snapchat, Twitter, YouTube and TikTok, and will include things like comments, forums and video-sharing.

Platforms will need to ensure that illegal content is removed quickly, and may also have to "minimise the risks" of it appearing at all.

These plans have been talked about for a while now.

The idea of new rules to tackle 'online harms' was originally set out by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport in May 2018.

The government has now decided to give Ofcom these new powers following research called the 'Online Harms consultation', carried out in the UK in 2019.

Plans allowing Ofcom to take control of social media were first spoken of in August last year.

Where to get help

If you are worried about these issues, there is lots of support out there for you to get help.

Speak to an adult you trust, like a parent, guardian or a teacher.

You can also contact Childline - a counselling charity for people aged 18 and under - on 0800 1111 for free at any time.

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