Facebook has recently launched an extension of the Messenger application, which caters to children aged 6 to 12 years old — Messenger Kids. Its introduction garnered mixed reviews and debates about its age-appropriateness.
The company describes Messenger Kids as a “free video calling and messaging app designed for kids to connect with close friends and family” on their devices. Facebook claims that the Messenger Kids app has a controlled social media environment for children since parents have full control over their kids’ contact list. Moreover, creating a Messenger Kids account does not mean signing them up for either a Facebook account or a Messenger account because parents must use their own login credentials to give their kids access to the app.
When it comes to content, Facebook claims that all art and creative elements are designed to be children-appropriate and that the app is completely advertisement-free. In terms of ensuring online safety, both parents and children users can block or report a contact for posting or sending inappropriate content.
But what is Facebook really trying to achieve?
Facebook’s decision to come up with Messenger Kids shows how some social media platforms abide by laws that protect child privacy. Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) includes the prohibition of “unfair or deceptive acts or practices in connection with the collection, use, and/or disclosure of personal information from and about children on the Internet.”
Stephen Balkam, CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute, further explains that the federal law does not allow websites or online services to collect personal information from kids younger than 13 without parental consent. It also imposes restrictions about advertisements directed at children.
By requiring parental consent before having access, Facebook was able to tap the under 13 market and officially make them social media users. One can argue, however, that communication and other activities are done in the app may not be entirely under parental consent and guidance as children can use the app on their own.
Should parents be happy about this app?
Health and medical experts, as well as civic society groups, are urging Facebook to discontinue Messenger Kids. Despite the existence of features that seem to put parents in control, the app has the features of the grown-up counterpart, the Messenger app. On Messenger Kids, the user will also know whether the contact is online and how long the contact has been active or inactive. It also has the feature that lets the child know whether the message has already been read or not. Such information causes anxiety to grown-ups and could be too stressful for children.
Research on teenagers has found that spending too much time on smartphones for things such as social media causes stress and depression. With those findings in mind, one would really be wary about letting a child under 13 use such social media platform on a regular basis.
Are kids ready to navigate online communication and relationships? Will it be beneficial to them to shift from face-to-face interaction to online this early? These are some of the important questions parents and guardians must ponder on before deciding whether to give that access to their child or not. Anything that could potentially threaten the privacy, security and well-being of children is something to be tread on lightly.
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