Facebook is always trying to elevate their social media game to the next level and appeal to an even greater audience. But their latest effort to do exactly that -- a messenger aimed exclusively at the under-13 set -- has concerned many parents and child advocates.
Messenger Kids launched in December, with a letter from the social network explaining that the app "makes it easier for kids to safely video chat and message with family and friends when they can’t be together in person. After talking to thousands of parents, associations like National PTA, and parenting experts in the US, we found that there’s a need for a messaging app that lets kids connect with people they love but also has the level of control parents want."
The standalone app is meant to be downloaded on to a child's tablet or smartphone and then, according to Facebook, be "controlled from a parent’s Facebook account."
This week, child-advocacy groups (such as Common Sense Media), civil-rights groups (like the ACLU of Boston), and dozens of pediatricians and medical experts joined with Campaign for a Commercial_Free Childhood to sign a letter that was sent to Mark Zuckerberg.
The letter urges the Facebook co-founder, chairman, and chief executive officer to "discontinue Messenger Kids, Facebook’s first social media app designed specifically for children under the age of 13. Given Facebook’s enormous reach and marketing prowess, Messenger Kids will likely be the first social media platform widely used by elementary school children. But a growing body of research demonstrates that excessive use of digital devices and social media is harmful to children and teens, making it very likely this new app will undermine children’s healthy development." They pointed to reading human emotion, delaying gratification and engaging with the physical world as developmental skills that the app may interfere with.
The group also noted that because research suggests a link between social media use and higher rates of depression among teens, it would be irresponsible for Facebook to expose preschool-aged children to a similar service.
In response to the campaign, Facebook's global head of safety, Antigone Davis, said in a statement, "We worked to create Messenger Kids with an advisory committee of parenting and developmental experts, as well as with families themselves and in partnership with National PTA. We continue to be focused on making Messenger Kids the best experience it can be for families." Facebook also said that Messenger Kids contains no advertising and said that parents who use the app say it helps them stay in touch with their children during work hours or when they are away.
Nonetheless, the Washington Post quotes Josh Golin, the executive director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, as stressing that kids don't necessarily need an app like this to connect with their loved ones. "We are at a pivotal moment, and the tech companies need to decide if they are going to act in a way that is more ethical and more responsive to the needs of children and families, or are they gong to continue to pursue profits at the expense of children's well-being? ... It’s not just the research — so many parents see it. They see what a battle it has become. To deny that these devices monopolize our attention and are designed in a way that interferes with human relationships, I think its irrefutable at this point."
How Facebook will address these concerns remains to be seen, but one thing's for sure: Innovative, thoughtful, nuanced debate is certain to be an integral in figuring out a resolution that works for tech companies and families. And with hope, it'll be a resolution that will put kids' well-being ahead of anything else.