Safety First! The Pros and Cons of Facebook Messenger Kids
It’s been several months since Facebook launched its new app, Messenger Kids, and it’s created quite a stir. Critics see it as a marketing tactic ready to hook young people into the Facebook ecosystem as early as possible. Fans of the app praise it as the kid-friendly social space they’ve been waiting for. So which is it?
How well does Messenger Kids lives up to its promise being a “fun, yet safer place for kids to connect with people they love?” Can social apps like Messenger Kids support positive development during a child’s formative years?
Here are the details so you can make an informed decision for your own family. Whether Messenger Kids is the solution you’ve been seeking or just another “screen monster,” you’ll want to explore our talking points at the end of this post.
What is Messenger Kids?
If you haven’t already heard, Messenger Kids is a stand-alone messaging app designed for kids age 6-12. It allows kids to connect with friends and family through a tablet or smartphone without the use of a phone number or Facebook account.
There are other apps on the market that provide this service. But Messenger Kids has been designed with very specific safety controls (we’ll get to those shortly). Plus, it is connected with the world’s most established social media network. Approved friends and family members can use their existing Facebook Messenger app to connect with young Messenger Kids users.
Everyone at Facebook headquarters is quite excited about the time and research that’s gone into the creation of this app:
"In addition to our research with thousands of parents, we’ve engaged with over a dozen expert advisors in the areas of child development, online safety and children’s media and technology who’ve helped inform our approach to building our first app for kids."
It’s hard to deny that Facebook has worked hard to listen to parents’ concerns about privacy, data collection, risk of predators and other online dangers. Though Messenger Kids is by no means a perfect solution, we can say confidently that it offers better security features than other commonly used apps like Snapchat, Instagram and Musical.ly. (All of which, according to federal law, are prohibited to users under the age of 13.) UPDATE: Musical.ly is now Tik Tok.
Quick overview of Messenger Kids’ security features
- Parental controls are “baked-in” (no need for a separate filtering product)
- Parent approves all child contacts
- Parent is notified if any content is flagged or reported on their child’s account
- Parent can remove a contact at anytime
- Child cannot restore deleted contacts
- Sharing of nudity, sexual content or violence is blocked
- A dedicated support team will respond quickly to flagged content
- App is pre-loaded with age-appropriate emojis, Gifs and stickers
- App has no hidden back-doors to Google search
- No in-app purchase
- No in-app advertising
- Child registers through a parent account
- Child accounts are not visible on Facebook
Potential red flags
This all sounds like incredible progress in online safety. But is it too good to be true?
One tech guide says parents should know there are limitations to Messenger Kids’ filtering system. In a series of simple tests, they discovered it was quite easy to sneak profanity and nudity (screenshots of naked buttocks) past the filters. On the plus side, the app’s dedicated support team performed better. When the offensive content was reported, it was removed in less than 3 hours —and the account was disabled.
Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood expressed strong concerns in an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg demanding Facebook pull the plug on Messenger Kids altogether. They argue that young children are simply not ready to handle the “interpersonal challenges and addictive power of social media.” The letter states:
"Messenger Kids is not responding to a need – it is creating one. It appeals primarily to children who otherwise would not have their own social media accounts. It is disingenuous to use Facebook’s failure to keep underage users off their platforms as a rationale for targeting younger children with a new product."
Does Messenger Kids impact healthy development?
Before deciding if Messenger Kids is the right fit for your family, consider how suitable or relevant it is for your child’s development. In other words, could kids age 6 -12 benefit from regular use of this kind of social app? Jennifer Shapka, a developmental psychologist says . . . it’s highly unlikely.
That’s because kids in this developmental stage aren’t yet seeking the social connections that older kids are. You, as a parent, are still the most important social agent in your child’s life. It’s not until the teen years approach that friends become the center of their social life.
That’s not to say that young kids won’t enjoy the app. On the contrary, they’ll love it! It could be the game aspects of the fun masks, sound effects, and stickers that draws them in. Perhaps we should ask the question, is this the way I want my child to be entertained? Shapka adds, "It's kind of beyond me why we'd endorse yet another way that encourages kids to sit behind a screen.
Social media use by kids
Facebook checked out the numbers, and discovered that many young kids are already using social media with their parent’s approval.
- 93% of 6-12-year-olds in the U.S. have access to tablets or smartphones
- 66% have their own device
- 3 out of 5 parents admit their children under 13 are using some kind of messaging app, social media or both.
The obvious concern is that most social apps come with high risks for this age group. We’ve written about how common it is for young children to be targeted by predators posing as friends or celebrities, how accessible pornography is, and the growing threat of sextortion.
Talking points: Putting safety first
It’s easy to believe that these dangers only happen to other kids. But all kids using any kind social media are at risk. Understanding that your own kids are at risk too is the first step towards giving them a safer social media experience.
If you’ve decided that Messenger Kids is a good fit for your family, here are some talking points to help you discuss with your child how they will use this app.
- Who are your online friends? Are you just looking for a fun and easy way to connect with grandparents? Will school friends be included? If so, why and how many? What are parent’s guidelines for approving new friends?
- Inappropriate content: Review what to do if they receive a message with bad words or bad pictures in it. Read Good Pictures Bad Pictures: Porn-Proofing Today’s Young Kids together to help them understand what pornography is and why it is harmful. Let kids know that you will regularly look through their messages - then follow through and be vigilant.
- Time limits/locations: Be clear about when and where social apps can be used. Some experienced parents suggest you sit with kids when they are talking online and shut down the app when it’s not in use. Many use an external monitoring system like Circle with Disney to enforce time limits.
Most importantly, determine if you’re ready to take on the added monitoring needed to keep your child safe on this communication platform.
What do you think about this app? We’ve love to hear from you. Consider sharing your own experience with kids and social apps in our new Facebook Discussion Group for Parents.
Good Pictures Bad Pictures
"I really like the no-shame approach the author takes. It's so much more than just 'don't watch or look at porn.' It gave my children a real understanding about the brain and its natural response to pornography, how it can affect you if you look at it, and how to be prepared when you do come across it (since, let's face it... it's gonna happen at some point)." -Amazon Review by D.O.