I’m not exactly sure how to feel about this one. Facebook has announced that they’re launching a new Messenger Kids app which will enable youngsters under the age of 13 to communicate with friends online.
There are two sides of the coin here. On one, there’s the negative – Facebook’s merely seeking to embed itself with younger audiences, fostering the next generation of users, while also potentially exposing kids to the dangers of online communication. But on the other, many kids are already active online, and are using chat-like apps which don’t have safety controls in place. My kids, for example, play Roblox online, within which they chat with other players.
Opinion will obviously be divided, though it is somewhat surprising that Facebook's chosen to launch Messenger Kids so close to the recent controversy surrounding YouTube Kids content. An investigation published on Medium found a range of disturbing examples of YouTube Kids videos, which has since lead to YouTube taking action to improve their processes.
Messaging is obviously significantly different to video content, but still, many parents were understandably concerned by the findings, and are therefore hyper-aware of the potential dangers of online activity right now. Seems an odd time to be pushing a new kids app.
But as noted, messaging is a different process, and the Messenger Kids app does make a lot of sense.
One of the biggest points of emphasis in Facebook’s announcement post is that they’ve consulted extensively with child safety groups in developing the new app, including National PTA and Blue Star Families. Facebook’s also anticipated potential backlash, and has included an extensive FAQ section on the Messenger Kids site, while they’ve also published a separate ‘Hard Questions’ post on child safety to help reassure parents.
How effective those resources will be is questionable – as noted, most parents, I suspect, will fall into the positive or negative camp, and will let their kids use the app or not.
The Messenger Kids process is fairly straight-forward – as explained by Facebook:
- Download: First, download the Messenger Kids app on your child’s iPad, iPod touch, or iPhone from the App Store.
- Authenticate: Then, authenticate your child’s device using your own Facebook username and password. This will not create a Facebook account for your child or give them access to your Facebook account.
- Create an account: Finish the setup process by creating an account for your child, where all you’ll need to do is provide their name. Then the device can be handed over to the child so they can start chatting with the family and friends you approve.
- Add contacts: To add people to your child’s approved contact list, go to the Messenger Kids parental controls panel in your main Facebook app. To get there, click on “More” on the bottom right corner in your main Facebook app, and click “Messenger Kids” in the Explore section.
The key element here is that parents need to approve any contacts on Messenger Kids – no one can be added to your child’s contact list without your approval (and the kids don’t actually have their own account, so they can’t circumvent this).
Once your kids have the app, and you’ve approved their contacts, they can communicate with friends, using a range of “kid-appropriate and specially chosen” GIFs, frames, stickers, masks and drawing tools.
In addition to communicating with friends, kids can also send messages to approved adult relatives, who’ll receive them via the regular Messenger app.
There are some interesting tools here, and I can say with some confidence that kids will love it, and definitely the processes in place do add a level of assurance to the process. There are also proactive detection filters to prevent children from sharing inappropriate content, and Facebook won't be using your child's activity for ad targeting.
But will I be letting my kids use Messenger Kids?
I honestly don’t know – I don’t have a solid stance either way as yet. Maybe, if their friends are using it, then I won’t want them to miss out, but having them online at all concerns me. Even with such stringent measures in place, it feels too young to have kids chatting online.
But then again, as noted by several commentators, many kids are online anyway, some in far less secure apps like Snapchat, which doesn’t have the best reputation for appropriate content.
That’s where the Facebook growth angle comes into play again – Facebook, by developing a child-friendly, parent-reassuring app, has the opportunity to further expand its empire, by helping youngsters build friendship networks on the app before they can officially sign-up for their own accounts. That’ll make them more likely to stick around with their established groups when they come of (Facebook) age.
There are two sides of the coin, clearly, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Facebook’s onto another winner with Messenger Kids, helping further solidify their future expansion.