One night last week, I opened Instagram, expecting to scroll through my usual feed of French bulldogs, Selling Sunset cast selfies, and Reels I don’t want to watch. But instead, a prompt popped up on my screen: “Add your birthday,” it said. Below were scrollable fields to select your birthdate, month, and year. I tried to tap out of the prompt, to no avail; I even closed the app and reopened it, but the prompt remained.
I did not want to tell Instagram my birthday. Plus, the platform’s parent company, Meta, already has that information; for years, I had my birthday on my Facebook profile. Looking for any way out, I clicked a link in the prompt that read: “Why do I need to do this?” Instagram’s help page explained that it wanted to verify that users were over 13, the minimum age to have an Instagram account in most countries. OK, then, I thought. I am definitely over 13, and as long as I pick a birth date before April 2009, I should be good. With a flick of my index finger, I scrolled backward through the field to select a year; it landed on a year a solid decade before I was born, so I impatiently flicked again, more forcefully this time, and discovered the field had scrolled all the way back to the 1930s. Intrigued, I kept flicking and landed on 1876. Sure, why not? 1876 it is. I clicked “save.”
Another prompt appeared. “Are you 146 years old?” it asked. The two options were “go back” and “yes.” Feeling combative, I clicked yes. How would Instagram know?
But of course it knew. No one, to our knowledge, has ever lived to 146; the oldest known person was only (“only”) 122, and some claim she might have been lying about her advanced age. My lie resulted in an immediate blocking, and shunted me to an Instagram page called “Help Us Verify Your Age.” My account would only be reinstated if I filled out a form, which required me to submit my full name, and a photo of a “valid ID” that includes my face and name of birth. “You must be 13 years old to have an Instagram account,” the form said. “We disabled your account because you are not old enough yet.” But lo! I was banned for being too old! Instagram has been clear that 13 is the minimum age to have an account, but does the platform’s system have a maximum age? If I’d reported I was, say, 105 instead, would that have triggered Instagram’s systems to require me to upload my ID?
I reached out to Instagram to ask if Instagram’s systems identify accounts that seem suspiciously old. “We do have a maximum age,” an Instagram communications rep told me, but would not discuss further details about that max on-record. This makes sense; the platform likely doesn’t want people knowing how to circumvent its systems. Twitter and TikTok also have minimum age requirements for users, but have not publicly stated whether they have age maximums; I reached out to both companies for comment, but never received a reply.
But I wanted to know more, so to find out, I tried to make a new account. When prompted to enter my birthdate, Instagram’s scrollable field for birth year only went back to 1919—my original selection, 1876, wasn’t even an option. Even after entering all my info into the iPhone app, I was unable to make a new account; Instagram gave me a generic error message after each attempt. Instead, I tried using my laptop, and my attempt to create a new account was blocked, saying my IP address had been flagged as an “open proxy”—an address people are using to make abusive accounts. (Perhaps my initial declaration of being 146 triggered this.) But with the help of a virtual private network, I was able to make a new account with a birthdate that would’ve made me 100 years and 1 day old.
Instagram isn’t the only social app asking users about their age. A 1998 law, meant to protect privacy of young children, prevents platforms from collecting marketing and tracking data from users under 13. As a result, social media sites have set the minimum age for accounts at 13, and platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and TikTok have also taken to asking users for age verification as well. For those, I typically use a more believable fake birthdate—April 20, 1969—and haven’t yet had a problem. (The subject of my next investigation: How many people use April 20, 1969, as a fake birthday?)
People who work at these companies weren’t born yesterday; they know users lie about their age. So now, companies are working on ways to catch you in your lie. The maximum age prompt might be one way to do this. Another might be to use AI; Instagram says it has technology that reviews users’ posts and comments to assess whether their declared age matches what they and their friends say. For instance, if a user tells Instagram they’re 21 but they have comments on their page from friends wishing them a happy 15th birthday or posts that mention a quinceañera, the AI may flag it. Instagram also says people can report underage accounts and that their content reviewers are “trained to flag reported accounts that appear to be used by people who are underage.” An Instagram rep told me that in the last two quarters of 2021, Meta removed more than 4.8 million “potentially underage” accounts on Facebook and 1.7 million accounts on Instagram.
Flagged accounts—whether triggered by AI analysis, user reports, content reviewers, or, in my case, clearly lying about my age—have to jump through some hoops to get their account back. The age verification form Instagram provided after blocking me required the upload of a valid ID, which includes a driver’s license, marriage license, or passport. (Twitter and TikTok require ID as well.) But younger folks may not have those documents at all, and other permitted documents—a birth certificate—are similarly sensitive. For others, names on these official documents may not match their identity.
The account Instagram blocked was the one I use for frivolous follows, like my favorite Aussie Boston Terriers and Bachelor Nation gossip, so I’ve decided that losing that account might be for the best. I’ll scroll less, and images of my irreplaceable identifying documents won’t be in the hands of a social media giant.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.