Facebook has just launched a standalone app called Messenger Kids, a video chat and messaging app aimed at children under 13. The app is not only a lot safer and more private than apps aimed at teens and adults, but it’s filled with fun features for youngsters and it offers parents control over who children communicate with.
Research from danah boyd (she prefers lowercase) and other scholars as well as Consumer Reports have found that millions of kids under 13 have used social media and messaging apps, often with their parents permission and assistance. But, in most cases, they get on these apps by lying about their age, because most of these services don’t allow pre-teens thanks in part to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) which restricts the ability of internet companies to collect even the most basic personal information from children under 13 without verifiable parental consent. But Messenger Kids complies with COPPA and goes even further by requiring not just parental consent but also parental involvement.
The app allows kids to conduct one-to-one or group video chats, message other users and take advantage of creative tools such as the ability to decorate photos and videos or add “kid-appropriate” masks, stickers and GIFs to their online conversations. Messenger Kids will work on both tablets and smartphones, initially Apple iPad and iPhones, with plans to expand to Android and Amazon Kindle next year.
The new app is a departure for Facebook whose other products, Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger, require that users be 13 or older. The same is true for Snapchat, Twitter, Kik and most other social media and messaging apps.
The timing of Messenger Kids coincides with the increased use connected devices by children. According to research commissioned by the National PTA, 90 percent of six to 12 year-olds have access to tablets or smartphones while two thirds of those kids own their own smartphone or tablet. Of those kids, two out of three use those devices every day. The survey found that 75 percent of kids between eight and 13 use messaging apps.
A recent Common Sense Media survey of parents of children under eight found a “spike in the number of young children who have their own tablet device (42 percent up from eight percent in 2013) and that young children are spending an average of 48 minutes a day using mobile devices.
I realize that some will worry about children’s’ privacy or that Facebook is “going after young children,” but it’s important to remember that – unlike many of the apps that kids may get their hands on – the people that kids can contact via Messenger Kids is completely controlled by the parent. Also, the free app doesn’t have any advertising or in-app purchases.
Kids can’t even sign-up on their own. The account needs to be established by a parent who is signed into their own Facebook account. Parents also use their Facebook account to take full control over their child’s contact list. Children can’t send or receive messages from anyone who hasn’t first been approved by their parent. Parents can also remove any contacts and kids can block any user they don’t want to interact with and report any inappropriate content they see. Facebook says that it has “dedicated teams that look at these reports and take action,” and that they will “remove reported content, including images or videos, that do not meet our Community Standards.”
To me, Messenger Kids is more than just a fun way for kids to communicate with prenatally approved friends and family. It’s also training wheels for social media and messaging. Nearly every child will eventually use apps and services that are not controlled or monitored by their parents, just as kids eventually go bike riding on their own. With Messenger Kids, parents can help guide their child from an early age, helping to establish good habits that can last them a lifetime.
Disclosure: Larry Magid is CEO of ConnectSafely.org, a nonprofit internet safety organizations that receives support from Facebook and other tech companies.
Analysis by Larry Magid, forbes