Child Experts Protest Facebook's Kids Messenger App

06 February, 2018

Child development experts are urging Facebook to remove its new messaging app designed for kids.

In a letter sent recently to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, the group of experts argue that young children are not ready to have social media accounts or online relationships.

Facebook launched the free Messenger Kids app in December. The app is meant for children under the age of 13. Facebook says the app provides a way for children to chat with family members as well as friends that their parents have approved.

The app does not give children their own Facebook or Messenger accounts. Instead, it is connected to a child's parent's account.

Facebook has said the app fills "a need for a messaging app that lets kids connect with people they love but also has the level of control parents want."

But critics say the app is a way for Facebook to bring in younger users before they choose another popular social media messaging service, such as Snapchat. And they have protested Facebook's claim that the app fills a need.

The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood is based in Boston, Massachusetts. It leads a group of 100 experts, activists and parenting organizations. The group includes mental health professionals, pediatricians, educators and the children's music singer Raffi Cavoukian.

The group wrote, "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.

The letter also criticized Facebook for "targeting younger children."

Facebook said on Monday that the app "helps parents and children to chat in a safer way." It also said that parents are "always in control" of their kids' activity. Facebook added that "there is no advertising in Messenger Kids."

App Annie is a company that studies app information. It said Messenger Kids has been downloaded about 80,000 times on Apple's iOS devices. The app has remained in the top 40 most popular kids' apps since its December 4 launch. That is not as high as observers had expected.

Facebook says it developed Messenger Kids after speaking with thousands of parents, major parental groups and child development experts. (Facebook)
Facebook says it developed Messenger Kids after speaking with thousands of parents, major parental groups and child development experts. (Facebook)

Young children not ready for Facebook

Many technology experts have questioned the effects of smartphones and social media on people's physical and mental health -- at any age. Sean Parker, Facebook's first president, said late last year that the social networking site abuses "vulnerability in human psychology" to make users dependent. Former Facebook employees and investors have made similar criticisms.

Many children under 13 already use Facebook. Many of them also use other platforms that target younger people. This includes Instagram and Snapchat, even though these companies require users to be at least 13 years old. Those rules are based on a federal law that does not let internet companies collect personal information on children without their parents' permission.

Some companies have offered parental controls as a way of preventing young children from using their platforms. But Facebook's new kid-centered app, with its animations and emojis, seems to be for a very young audience, says Josh Golin. He is executive director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.

"It looks like something that would appeal to a 6-year-old or 7-year-old," Golin said.

Facebook said when it launched Messenger Kids that the app would not show advertisements or collect marketing information. It also said it would not transfer users to the regular Messenger or Facebook once they are old enough. But the company did say it may give the Kids Messenger users the choice to move their contacts to the regular Messenger later.

University of Michigan developmental behavioral pediatrician Jenny Radesky co-signed the group letter. She said she has never met a parent who wanted their child to begin using social media at an earlier age.

She said she believes that Facebook created the app to attract younger users. That is troubling, she said; younger children have not yet developed certain mental skills. Such skills help them control their thoughts and actions and, in Radesky's words, "allow them to realize when persuasive technology design might be manipulating them."

I'm Phil Dierking.

This story was originally written by Matt O'Brien and Barbara Ortutay for the Associated Press. Phil Dierking adapted it for VOA Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.

Do you think having a social media messaging app for children younger than 13 is good? We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section or on 51VOA.COM.


Words in This Story

app - n. a computer program that performs a special function

animation - n. a way of making a movie by using a series of drawings, computer graphics, or photographs of objects that are slightly different from one another and that when viewed quickly one after another create the appearance of movement

emoji - n. a small digital image or icon used to express an idea, emotion, etc., in electronic communication.

manipulate - v. to deal with or control (someone or something) in a clever and usually unfair or selfish way

pediatrician - n. a doctor who treats babies and children

platform - n. a program or set of programs that controls the way a computer works and runs other programs

psychology - n. the science or study of the mind and behavior

vulnerability - n. ways that someone is easily hurt or harmed physically, mentally, or emotionally