Messenger Kids, Facebook’s messaging service for children, is rolled out to Android users yesterday. It’s a bold move, given that the app has gotten a lot of heat since its launch in December. Nearly 100 child health advocates signed a letter to Mark Zuckerberg last month urging him to delete the app, and Wired reported today that many of the experts who gave Messenger Kids their stamp of approval were funded by the social network.
For the uninitiated, Messenger Kids is for kids as young as six, and it lets parents control who their children can talk to on the service. It’s unsurprising Facebook would make a play to attract younger users, given that its main social network requires you to be 13 or older. A Facebook spokesperson told Gizmodo in an email that a motivation behind launching the app was that “many of us at Facebook are parents ourselves, and it seems we weren’t alone when we realised that our kids were getting online earlier and earlier.” The spokesperson then noted that, according to an external study from Dubit, 93 per cent of six- to 12-year-olds in the US have access to tablets or smartphones.
The spokesperson also said that for over a year, the company has listened to “thousands of parents through roundtable discussions, research, and within our own walls at Facebook, and they’ve expressed the need for safer online experiences tailored to kids’ needs. We also formed an advisory committee of experts from the fields of child development, media and online safety to help inform our work on the app.”
But, as Wired reported, most of the experts tasked with scrutinising the the app had financial ties to Facebook, creating a clear conflict of interest. Rather than engage with its fiercest critics, or even critics who didn’t have their hands in Facebook’s pockets, the social network chose experts likely to lean in its favour. This casts doubt on how credible the critiques are, and it signals that Facebook cares more about lip service than meaningful findings.
There isn’t a lot of worthwhile evidence suggesting that young children should be roped into the world of social media. The letter from the US organisation Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood listed a number of developmental issues attributed to screen time and social media use. And that doesn’t even scratch the surface of the potential privacy and security implications kids are now vulnerable to. Regardless of parental controls, content violating terms of service, like hateful or inappropriate content, will be up to Facebook to deal with. As we’ve seen, it has yet to prove it can moderate without some screwups.
It remains to be seen how widely Messenger Kids will be adopted by Android users, but app data company App Annie ranked it 36th on Apple’s App Store charts for “Kids Apps” in the US as of the end of January, and it was ranked fifth among “9-11 Kids Apps” in the US on iOS. It’s far from as popular as Facebook’s regular Messenger app, but it’s clearly getting some use.
“Will Facebook listen?” the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood said in an emailed statement to Gizmodo last month. “I think we’re at a pivotal moment where there is increasing concern about the role that the big tech companies are having in shaping our children, our families, our society and democracy. Getting rid of an app that habituates young children into using social media seems like a good first step for Mark Zuckerberg to make good on his pledge to ‘do better.’”
Given the app’s expansion to Android, it doesn’t seem like Facebook has any plans to slow its campaign to tighten its grip on young minds.