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Viewpoint: Facebook Messenger for kids? It's a 'no' from me

Tyrone Stewart

Tyrone Stewart Last week, Facebook rolled out a US iOS preview for its alternative messaging app for children, Messenger Kids. As you’d expect, not everybody is overly thrilled with the idea of their kids having access to a messaging app, and they have their concerns over how the app could be exploited. Facebook has assured that the app is safe, but to what extent can we actually believe that?

The app, aimed at children aged from six to 12, is downloaded to a child’s device through the App Store as usual. Once downloaded, parents are required to authenticate the device using their own username and password. They then create an account for their child, and add friends and family to the child’s approved contact list via the Messenger Kids parental controls in their main Facebook app.

Messenger Kids doesn’t have ads or in-app purchases, but children’s data is still being collected – one of nuggets we will get on to a bit later. It has also been designed to be compliant with the Children’s Online Privacy and Protection Act (COPPA), and features a library of appropriate GIFs, frames, stickers, masks, and drawing tools for kids to use add personality to their photos, videos, and text messages.

YouTube anyone?
For some, following that description, the app may not actually sound so bad. But, I assure you, it still is.

Firstly, there is a bit of a timing issue with Facebook’s release of the children’s app: it comes not so long after YouTube’s issues with both paedophilic content on its main site, and disturbing videos making it through filters and on to its own kids-dedicated app. Both of these, almost intertwined, controversies forced Google-owned YouTube to look to hire thousands more staff to moderate content, and put in place several other measures.

This makes it odd that Facebook would choose now to risk releasing a beta version of an app aimed at children. If you see a rival struggle to pull something off, you don’t usually attempt to try something similar just after their failure, you’d wait it out a little longer and really consider if it’s in your best interest. Furthermore, there’s the issue that some of the backlash against Facebook’s Messenger Kids is actually due to heightened concerns following YouTube’s controversies.

Now, that still doesn’t tell us why the app is bad – just why its release is somewhat illogical – but we’re getting there now, I promise folks.

We want to know everything about your kids, because why not?
As pointed out earlier, Facebook will collect the data of the children that use its app, though apparently won’t use this data for advertising. That’s all fair, but for what reason does anybody have to collect the data of six to 12-year olds? One can only imagine this data is going to be collated and used to create a picture of these children, so that they can be served relevant ads as soon as they hit 13 years old and have their own main Facebook account.

Even then, there’s a chance that Facebook will end up placing ads on Messenger Kids in the future anyway, because the social network has a habit of saying it won’t do something, then doing it and apologising.

(Not a) Safe space
A bigger problem than the collection of data and advertising is the safety concerns surrounding the app. Many kids between six and 12 years old already have full Facebook accounts – having just lied about their age, it’s pretty easy to do. If Facebook can’t regulate this, what makes anyone think it will be able to stop people figuring out a way to get around the controls on Messenger Kids? Additionally, what about if a child has knowledge of their parent’s login details and adds people without their parent’s actual authentication?

A more immediate, realistic safety issue is the issue of cyberbullying and harassment that Facebook is still failing to get a handle over on its social network. What if a parent adds a child that they believe is friends with their child, but is merely a bully they are in the same class as? This is a disaster waiting to happen. Social media is simply too toxic for any child that young to be a part of.

Cold out, isn’t it?
The toxicity of social media and the internet may not even be the worse part for the kids on the app.

We’re always hearing that kids don’t spend enough time outside and playing. They already spend most of their childhoods in front of screens – whether that screen is a smartphone, a tablet, a PC, or a TV. Why do kids need another excuse to stare at a screen to chat to Billy that they only saw 2 hours earlier, or to aunt Katie who they could just talk to on the phone?

Facebook pointed out as one reason for creating the app that 93 per cent of US six to 12-year-olds have at least some access to a smartphone or tablet – a figure which is certainly a worry. It becomes even more worrying when the rising levels of depression and anxiety amongst the younger humans in society is linked to the amount of time they spend in front of screens, according to studies. And then there’s the lack the slower mental development, and lack of real-world social skills.

We are building a world of socially inept people, and – as Sir Tim Berners-Lee would put it – “the system is failing” with social media “ripping apart” society. At a time when we need to find a way for children to spend less time in front of screens, Facebook has decided it wants to muddy the water further.

Simply, Messenger Kids is a horrible idea whichever way you look at it, and I cannot find any justifiable reason why any child between six and 12 years of age would need to be on a messaging app. Facebook should sort out the problems with its social network before it creates other pointless ones.