Privacy & Security

Facebook’s New Messaging App for Young Children Raises Concerns

By Benjamin Herold — December 06, 2017 3 min read
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Social-networking giant Facebook has launched a new messaging app aimed at children under 13, part of a push to bolster the company’s younger user base that is raising fears about expanded use of screens and social media by children.

In a news release, Facebook product management director Loren Cheng described “Messenger Kids” as “a new app that makes it easier for kids to safely video chat and message with family and friends when they can’t be together in person.” Parents can control the app from their own Facebook accounts, Cheng wrote, and Messenger Kids was developed based on “research with thousands of parents” and input from “over a dozen expert advisors in the areas of child development, online safety, and children’s media and technology.”

The app allows users to hold one-on-one or group video chats, highlights when parent-approved contacts are available online, and comes with a range of digital masks, emojis, GIFs, and sound effects that are popular on other social media platforms, such as Snapchat.

Among the groups questioning the move was Common Sense Media, a California-based nonprofit group that conducts research and advocacy around children’s use of digital media at home and in school.

“A messenger app for kids under 13 that only parents can sign them up for sounds like a nice idea on its face, but without clear policies about data collection, what happens to the content children post, and plans for the future, it is impossible to fully trust the platform,” founder and CEO James P. Steyer said in a statement. “Why should parents simply trust that Facebook is acting in the best interest of kids?”

Among the concerns raised are lack of clarity around what data the app will collect from users, how it might be used, and for how long it will be retained by the company. Steyer praised Facebook for making Messenger Kids ad-free, but pressed the company to commit to keeping it that way in the future.

Because the app specifically targets children under 13, Facebook must comply with the Children’s Online Privacy and Protection Act, which requires that companies obtain parental consent before collecting information online from children. The law also guarantees parents the right to access and delete their children’s information.

As Education Week reported this week, the Federal Trade Commission and the U.S. Department of Education are currently weighing whether to issue further guidance on COPPA and the country’s other major student-data-privacy law, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA.

The other big concern around Facebook Messenger Kids is that it will promote more screen time and social-media use by young children, who are already spending an increasing amount of time using digital devices both at home and in school.

Almost one-fourth of children ages 8-12 have their own smartphones, and 98 percent of children under 8 live in a home with a mobile device, according to research by Common Sense. Children under 8 now spend an average of 48 minutes per day on mobile devices, the group found. In addition, many elementary schools around the country now have 1-to-1 computing programs, which provide students with daily access to laptops, tablets, or other devices in school.

The American Academy of Pediatrics currently recommends that parents and guardians place “consistent limits” on the amount of time that children 6 years and older spend using screen media, monitor the types of media they use, and “make sure media does not take the place of adequate sleep, physical activity, and other behaviors essential to health.”

Facebook’s push into a younger market likely reflects a growing sense that the platform is losing popularity among younger users. A recent study by market-research firm eMarketer predicted declines in Facebook use by 12- to 17-year olds, while other platforms such as Instagram (which Facebook owns) and Snapchat (a competitor) have grown in popularity with the same audience.

According to a 2015 study by the Pew Research Center, though, Facebook remained the most popular social-media tool for teens, with 71percent of children ages 13 to 17 using the platform.

Early-childhood-education experts have generally recognized that screens and technology are a part of children’s lives, but suggested that how and why they are used is key. One area of focus: making sure parents and educators are an active part of children’s media usage, engaging them in high-quality conversations as they interact with screens and digital media.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.