Facebook recently rolled out a messaging app aimed at children 13-years old and below called Messenger Kids. And parents and experts are worried.
As a parent, do you let your children have a Facebook account? Do you let them do as they please on social media? If you do, you may have heard of Facebook Messenger Kids and thought it could be better for your children.
We’re about to tell you what other parents and experts think about this app, to help you make an informed choice.
Facebook Messenger Kids: What is it?
Facebook recently released an app called Facebook Messenger Kids aimed at youngsters under 13-years-old.
The app is a simplified, locked-down version of the Facebook Messenger app. It requires parental approval before use. And the data it generates is not given to third parties for use in advertising.
However, this app has been met with outrage by more than 100 child health experts who called that it be taken down.
In an open letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, child health experts called the Facebook Messenger Kids app a “particularly irresponsible” effort to encourage children to use Facebook.
The problem with Facebook Messenger Kids
A wide array of child welfare groups signed the letter, chiefly the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. In addition to these organisations, it was also signed by top experts and academics in child care and science, like British scientist Baroness Susan Greenfield.
Facebook, of course, countered this statement. “Since we launched in December we’ve heard from parents around the country that Messenger Kids has helped them stay in touch with their children and has enabled their children to stay in touch with family members near and far.
“For example, we’ve heard stories of parents working night shifts being able to read bedtime stories to their children, and mums who travel for work getting daily updates from their kids while they’re away,” they said in their defence.
Facebook claimed that they designed Facebook Messenger Kids with online safety experts as a response to parents calling for more control over their kids’ social media usage.
Child care groups counter Facebook
Despite the family-oriented spirit Facebook claims this app was made in, it still didn’t deter parents from speaking out.
The letter questioned the need for Facebook to fulfill such a specific role in kids lives.
“Talking to family and friends over long distances doesn’t require a Messenger Kids account. Kids can use parents’ Facebook, Skype, or other accounts to chat with relatives. They can also just pick up a phone.”
Child health experts stated in the letter that young children are not ready to have social media accounts, much less Facebook Messenger Kids.
They said children are “not old enough to navigate the complexities of online relationships, which often lead to misunderstandings and conflicts even among more mature users.”
Meanwhile, the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood has a pragmatic take on the app.
They said in a tweet that Facebook’s claim that it benefits families is a lie, and is actually just beneficial to the social media company instead.
Facebook Messenger Kids not a safe alternative
The 100-strong group of experts countered Facebook in the following statement:
“…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.”
The letter also disputes Facebook’s claims that Facebook Messenger Kids provides a safe alternative. There are, and will be, children who have lied their way into age-restricted social media platforms. It seems naive to think that children will go into a virtual space that limits their social reach.
“The 11- and 12-year-olds who currently use Snapchat, Instagram, or Facebook are unlikely to switch to an app that is clearly designed for younger children,” the letter stated.
“Messenger Kids is not responding to a need — it is creating one.”
Children on Facebook are more depressed
The experts also cited research that links teens’ social media use and increased depression and anxiety.
“Adolescents who spend an hour a day chatting on social networks report less satisfaction with nearly every aspect of their lives.
“Eighth graders [13- to 14-year-olds] who use social media for six to nine hours per week are 47% more likely to report they are unhappy than their peers who use social media less often.”
The letter also cited research exploring the relationship between children and smart devices/social media. These effects include the following.
- Girls between the ages of 10 and 12 are “more likely to idealise thinness, have concerns about their bodies, and to have dieted.”
- A study reveals that 78% of adolescents check their phones every hour.
Around 50% of adolescents studied say they are addicted to their smartphones.
- In another study with parents as participants, 50% said regulating the time their kids spend on smart devices is a constant and often uphill battle.
So instead of discouraging children from being on their phones, Facebook Messenger Kids only seeks to encourage this behaviour.
Parents weigh in
Many parents on social media weighed in on Facebook’s move to roll out their Facebook Messenger Kids app.
Some are quite pleased with the new development, but most of them are worried that it’s only going to make matters worse.
One mum Sherry Turkle put it best. “In a landscape of ubiquitous technology that undermines children’s emotional growth, the last thing the youngest among them need is a powerful enticement to move their friendships online,” she said.
Simply put, kids need to maintain relationships with real friends for healthy social and emotional growth. This cannot be replaced with online friendships.
Meanwhile, dad Marc Benioff compared social media to smoking and excessive alcohol drinking. He went on to say they are already not good for adults and they most definitely are not good for children. What makes this worse is that social media is “virtually unregulated” while cigarettes and alcohol already have strict regulation.
However, not all the feedback were negative.
One parent simply named Meredith admitted that she loved Facebook Messenger Kids despite the backlash it received. She said her kids can learn messaging etiquette through the app. She also said it offers her kids more opportunities to communicate and connect with family members more.
How to make the internet fun but safe
You can make the internet safe for your kids while still keeping it fun and useful. There are many ways you can do this. We’ve put together the basics here:
1. Enable YouTube safety mode
This has been around for a long time, but most people are not aware that Google has a built-in Safety Mode for Youtube. The Safety Mode uses community flagging, age restrictions, and other criteria to help filter inappropriate YouTube content.
Of course, it’s not 100% effective but it’s better than nothing. Actually, it does its job decently enough.
2. Go on ZuiTube
ZuiTube is a sort of (educational) Internet playground for children. Their video section is composed of YouTube videos considered appropriate for children.
All of Zui’s content is reviewed and approved by a network of over 200 parents and teachers, so kids can log on to Zui and browse without coming across questionable content.
3. Use internet filters
An effective way to restrict the internet’s influence on your child is by filtering out its inappropriate content. You can find these filters in specific browsers, or they can have a wider influence on the whole computer.
4. Put the computer in a public space
It’s easy for children to access inappropriate content in private spaces. But you can ensure this doesn’t happen by placing desktop computers in “public” spaces within the home. You can also position the monitor so that it can be seen by all.
If they’re borrowing gadgets from you, it would be best if they don’t take it into their rooms.
Talk to your children
No matter what you do your kids will eventually find a way to access questionable content on the internet whether by accident or through their friends. It would be unrealistic to expect your child will be “innocent” forever. So it’s best if kids are armed with the knowledge and wisdom to know what’s good content or not — and what to do when they are faced with inappropriate videos and sites.
Talk to your kids about important issues, like violence, sex, consent, harassment, bullying, and so on. Then, tell them about what they can do when they encounter such things.
Parents can’t police their children’s online habits 24/7. A more pro-active solution is for you to occupy your kids with positive activities. Children who take interest in music, books, art, or sports are too busy to look for nonsense on the internet.