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Facebook Messenger for six-year-olds: need I say why that's a bad idea?

Letting six- to 12-year-olds use Messenger Kids, Facebook’s new app targeting young children, is a terrible idea, and not necessarily because of concerns over online safety.

Facebook went to great lengths in rolling out the app to assure parents that its latest shiny object was developed “with parents” and “parenting experts” to keep kids “safe.” This was even used as a rationale for developing the app, as Facebook said in a blog post on the day of the launch, the alleged “need” for a messaging app for young children that gives parents a “level of control”.

But “level” is the operative word here.

While Facebook has designed Messenger Kids so that only parents can approve contacts, and can closely monitor their children’s messaging, this doesn’t mean that kids won’t figure out ways around these controls, as they have with Facebook’s existing platform, on which countless kids who are not yet 13 have lied about their ages and created accounts.

It also doesn’t mean that parents, who are often overwhelmed with other concerns, or simply trusting of what their kids tell them about their online “friends,” will actually remain consistently involved in the monitoring of every contact or message.

And will Facebook be there to pick up the slack, if something goes wrong? Not likely, if its history is any guide. Facebook doesn’t effectively control the grievous amount of abuse on its main platform, including cyberbullying and revenge porn – it leaves it to users to report these abuses, a grossly imperfect method of monitoring that has been widely criticized.

Sandy Parakilas, a former Facebook operations manager, wrote a New York Times op-ed in November entitled, “We can’t trust Facebook to regulate itself,” in which he relayed an instance in which the company did not have controls in place to keep another developer from collecting data to “automatically generate profiles of children, without their consent”.

Facebook promises that the collection of children’s data on Messenger Kids will be limited. But limited to what, and to what end? The company owes parents a much more detailed explanation of what type of data it will be collecting on this app, and how it will be used. Not to generate ads, the company promises (at least for now). OK, but then what kind of data, exactly, will a six-year-old be providing Facebook that it needs to gather?

The issue of data pales in comparison with the more troubling concern of screen time. Let’s assume that everything goes as Facebook suggests, and parents are checking up on every single contact and message sent by their young children on Messenger Kids. Kids still don’t “need” another messaging app. Kids don’t need more screen time at all – they need less. And they don’t need to be using any form of social media at a younger age. They need to wait until they are older. Delay, delay, is the watchword of many experts in this field.

In 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics released policy recommendations setting strict limits on screen time, particularly at younger ages. Excessive screen time has been linked, in studies, to delayed speech, loss of sleep, and other ills ranging from anxiety to depression to impaired concentration.

What do children really need? They need to play. They need to learn to socialize and communicate face to face. And while Facebook suggests that the purpose of its new app is to allow children who are separated from their parents and grandparents throughout the day to be able to communicate with them, there are already ways for them to do this – there are phones and there is texting, ideally regulated by the person in whose care the children are left.

Kids are getting phones at younger and younger ages, a regrettable trend that is also part of Facebook’s reasoning for introducing this new app. “Some 93% of six- to 12-year-olds in the US have access to tablets or smartphones, and 66% have their own device,” Antigone Davis, Facebook’s public policy director and global head of safety, says in another blog post promoting Messenger Kids.

But the proliferation of smartphones among younger children is itself a health concern, not a reason to be inventing new products that potentially exacerbate the problem.

With Messenger Kids, Facebook is clearly targeting a younger market, making a move to get children engaged with its brand at a younger age. At age 13, the account of a child on Messenger Kids will automatically migrate over to Facebook. “Get ’em while they’re young” has been a bedrock tenet of marketing forever, and this is no different.

Messenger Kids will be used by kids mostly, I believe, to talk to each other. They will lose more language skills in favor of sending videos and gifs. They will be communicating more and more through screens, behind which, studies tell us, we are all likely to be more aggressive and even less ethical. Is this really how we want children to grow up?

By Nancy Jo Sales

11 December 2017 

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