Blog Post

New Messenger Kids App Stirs Debate

In an effort to tap into the lucrative children’s market while still complying with existing child safety laws, Facebook introduced a new messaging app for kids under the age of 13 that has fueled the debate about the impact of social media on children.

The Washington Post is reporting on the new app, called Messenger Kids, which allows users under the age of 13 to send texts, videos and photos. In addition, they can also draw on pictures they send and add stickers.

The app, which launched yesterday in the U.S., gives the company access to a new market whose age prohibit them from using Facebook’s main social network. Safeguards have been built into the new app, such as requiring parents to use their Facebook email address and password to activate their child’s account. When setting up the account, parents decide which friends and relatives their child will be permitted to connect with. Outside of this list, if two children want to be friends, they will each need parental approval for contact.

“It's just like setting up a play date,” said Antigone Davis, Facebook’s head of global safety.

Davis says the company consulted with hundreds of parents and children’s advocacy groups such as the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children when building safeguards.

For instance, unlike the adult version, data collection on children’s usage will be limited. The new app does not set up an account for the child. Parents are asked to provide only their child’s name.

All of this is in keeping with the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) which requires companies targeting children under 13 to take extra steps to safeguard privacy and security. This includes advertising because children may not understand what is – and what is not – an ad.

Messenger Kids will have no ads and will not use data collected from the app for Facebook ads, nor will it be fed to the main social network or automatically port to other Facebook products when they turn 13.  For example, parents would not see a toy ad appearing on their Facebook page because their child mentioned it in Messenger Kids.

For years, major tech firms such as Facebook complied with COPPA by not allowing those under 13 to have accounts. But as technology seeps deeper into the home and our lives, social media firms are on the prowl looking for innovative ways to legally tap into the children’s market which is comprised of over 48 million young Americans.

“It’s a very lucrative market; companies want to capture these people, these children, so they can keep them throughout their lives,” said Kathryn Montgomery, a communications professor at American University and one of the main advocates who helped get COPPA passed.

As good as it all might sound, the Post’s Hayley Tsukayama also points out concerns about the new app.

For example, per the app's privacy policy, Facebook collects information on the content of messages. “It also reserves the right to share information with other firms as necessary — such as customer service providers or companies that can help it analyze how the app is being used,” Tsukayama reports. “Those companies, in turn, must have their own privacy policies to protect children . . .”

But will they?

Facebook also promises to delete any data from its servers should a parent decide to delete the child’s account, but how will we know this has actually been done?

“We appreciate that for now, the product is ad-free and appears designed to put parents in control. But why should parents simply trust that Facebook is acting in the best interest of kids?” said Jim Steyer, executive director of Common Sense Media, in a statement.

And even though Facebook has been careful to comply with the law, Montgomery warned that many products that start out as noncommercial can change over time.

“New aspects of the product will emerge,” she said, in her role as a senior consultant for the Center for Digital Democracy. “I think we’re at an interesting moment, and there are a lot of moves into that marketplace.”

Facebook is indeed joining an ever-growing list of tech outreaches to children under the age of 13. For example, Google launched Family Link in March of this year which allows parents to set up kid-friendly Google accounts. Amazon has also built kid-focused “skills” into its Echo smart speakers which require a parent’s permission to activate.

Messenger Kid is launching on Apple’s App Store first with plans to release Android and Amazon versions next year.

The new app has just added fuel to the already burning question most parents are grappling with today - just how young do we want our children to be before they become involved in social media?

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