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Instagram and Facebook Parental Controls Could Actually Put Vulnerable Teens at Risk, Experts Warn

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Meta’s new parental controls aimed at providing more oversight for teenagers who use Instagram, Facebook, and Messenger have been widely welcomed by tech safeguarding experts, but some have cautioned that the features could put young people who rely on online communities as a lifeline at risk.

The new features allow guardians to view their teens’ Messenger contacts, monitor which Instagram accounts their teen follows and is followed by, and see how many friends their teen has in common with those accounts. These come as Meta has already been rolling out safety and privacy features, including a ‘Quiet Mode’ that allows users to take a break from app notifications and a policy banning adults from direct-messaging teens that don’t follow them.

Tech safeguarding experts say that the new tools, which do not allow parents to read a child’s messages and require an opt-in from both parents and teens, are a “baby step” in the right direction. However, some warn that these new features could put some vulnerable adolescents who rely on the app for community building and support they may not be getting at home, such as young LGBTQ+ people, at risk.

“It’s great that there are some additional considerations of thinking about how to make social media safer for youth generally,” says Shelley Craig, a professor at the University of Toronto whose research focuses on how young LGBTQ+ people communicate online. ”We just have to be very careful in the ways that we think about defaulting to parents as the experts in the lives of their adolescents.”

When ‘online is safer than offline’

In recent years, Meta has faced growing criticism for its outsized impact on teens. In 2021, a former Meta employee-turned-whistleblower, Frances Haugen, leaked internal documents that indicated, among other things, that Meta knew Instagram adversely affected the body image and mental health of teen girls but buried its findings. Meta has denied the claims. (The company did not respond to TIME’s request for comment.) Last month, the U.S. Surgeon General issued an 19-page advisory report saying that for children, social media use presents a “profound risk of harm,” and urged the government to tighten health and safety standards for social media platforms.

But experts point out that social media can be a lifeline for some teens who are struggling with their lives offline. A 2020 report in the Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology found that online-only friendships often provide protection for teens experiencing suicidal ideation. And a 2022 Pew Research survey found that 67% of teens said that social media platforms make them feel as if they have people who can support them through tough times.

In many cases, for queer youth “online is safer than offline,” says Craig, who notes that younger users can change their account’s privacy settings or block harmful users—options that are not available in the real world. “We have found a reduction in suicides [among LGBTQ+ teenagers] with social media use, particularly for those that have a lot of risk factors offline, like potentially abusive parents or unsafe environments.”

While the features are intended to encourage transparency around who teens are contacting, parental access to who a young user is messaging or following could cause problems for some teens. “There are particular situations where their parents finding out who they’ve been in contact with, or what type of help they’re seeking, is potentially going to cause harm to that young person,” says Nia West-Bey, the director of youth policy at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Law and Social Policy.

One Instagram feature will allow parents to see the number of connections between the accounts their child follows and are followed by, making it easier to spot outliers that aren’t connected to any of the user’s friends. Meta says the tool will “give parents more visibility into their teens’ experiences on the app and to prompt teens to have conversations with their parents.”

But if a parent or guardian sees that an account has no friends in common, it could raise questions that the teen might not be comfortable or safe enough answering, especially for LGBTQ+ youth. “So much rich exploration of self and building of community happens by following queer influencers, mentors, or other queer kids that may not be followed by their core friend group,” said Craig. “If a parent had access to that it could automatically out a kid, and it might not be safe for them to be outed.”

The added scrutiny could actually drive teens away from the platforms, experts argue, especially if they feel as though their confidentiality is being violated. “The developmental consequences of someone else peering into [social media accounts] could be very bad, particularly for vulnerable adolescents like girls or LGBTQ adolescents that might feel additional pressure to not communicate at a really critical time in their development,” says Kris Perry, executive director of Children and Screens, a non-profit focused on digital media and childhood development.

And there could be another consequence. Having parents monitor their kids’ social media use might be harmful for teenagers’ development, preventing them from learning self-management skills on their own, says Perry. “One of the major tasks of child development is learning to manage oneself and developing executive function,” she says. “As children get older, increased autonomy is a developmental task. And so we want to make sure that the platforms don’t suppress that developmental task by giving too much power back to the parent at an older and older ages.”

Putting the onus entirely on parents is a blanket solution to potential harms online doesn’t fully address product safety issues for all teens, says West-Bey. “We have to make policy decisions with the most marginalized folks in mind because that actually ends up getting us better policy for everybody,” she says.

“Meta has a ways to go here in terms of making the product safer overall, rather than asking parents to make it safer for their individual children,” says Perry. “It’s not upstream enough to really help all kids.”

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Write to Simmone Shah at simmone.shah@time.com