Facebook Launch ‘Messenger Kids’ App with Full Parental Control

Use of the Facebook platform is restricted to those aged 13 and above; at least that’s what the terms and conditions say. In reality there are hordes of preteen children using the site on a daily basis, and Facebook are now taking steps to address this issue.

This is the justification used by the social media giant as they launch ‘Messenger Kids’, a brand new app available on Apple devices which purportedly aims to provide a safer environment for those young children who are using Facebook’s existing Messenger service anyway, but who by doing so risk exposure to content that may be considered harmful to kids of their age.

Img: Facebook

The new app comes with a slew of parental controls; for example the service won’t let children add their own friends or delete messages, only their parents can do that. Also, the child does not get a separate Facebook or Messenger account when signing up to the new app, and are instead given access to the service via an extension of their parent’s existing Facebook account.

Kristelle Lavallee, a children’s psychology expert and content strategist at the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard University, advised Facebook throughout the design process. She warns that when young children do make use of services not designed for them, they risk harm through the very nature of such platforms.

“The risk of exposure to things they were not developmentally prepared for is huge,” she said.
In light of this, Ms Lavallee insists that Messenger Kids has been designed from the ground up to provide a “useful tool” that “makes parents the gatekeepers”. The interface and functions are apparently “a result of seeing what kids like,” which basically means an overload of images, emoji, and memes. Lavallee asserts that providing such a platform for kids who are just learning how to form relationships and stay in touch with parents digitally could actually be highly useful to their development of such traits.

The major legal problem for Facebook when it comes to underage users on their main platform is that federal law prohibits internet companies from collecting personal information on kids under 13 without their parents’ permission, and imposes restrictions on advertising to them. Given the vast amount of preteens already signed up to Facebook, the company are undoubtedly in breach of this law whether intentionally or otherwise. As such the launch of the new service is, according to CEO of the non-profit Family Online Safety Institute Mr Stephen Balkam, visible validation that Facebook is trying to deal with the situation pragmatically by steering young Facebook users to a service designed for them.

Facebook insist that the Kids app will not show ads or collect user data for advertising purposes, though they did state that some data will be collected but only that which is necessary for the proper operation of the service. The company also somewhat allayed fears that the new app was purely a way to ensure that users were signed up to their main platform as soon as possible with their insistence that it won’t automatically move users to the regular Messenger or Facebook when they get old enough; they may however give users the option to move contacts to Messenger down the line.

Despite all these apparently well-intentioned claims, some remain unconvinced. One such critic is James Steyer, CEO of the kids-focused non-profit group Common Sense, who admits that while he does like the idea of a messaging app which gives control to the parents, he worries about some aspects of the service. Among his concerns are whether Facebook’s promise to keep the service ad-free will last, and whether these ads will simply be passed on to the parents instead.

“Why should parents simply trust that Facebook is acting in the best interest of kids?” Steyer said in a statement. “We encourage Facebook to clarify their policies from the start so that it is perfectly clear what parents are signing up for.”

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