In 2011, Consumer Reports released research saying that 7.5 million children under 13 were using Facebook in violation of the company’s terms of service that require all users to be 13 or older. Later that year, a research team led by danah boyd (she spells her name all lowercase) found that 95 percent of the parents whose 10-year-olds were on Facebook knew about it, and 78 percent of them helped their kids sign up. I haven’t seen recent research showing how many pre-teens are using Instagram, Snapcat, Facebook Messenger, Kik and other apps aimed at teens and adults, but I suspect the numbers are into the millions.
One of the main reasons social media and messaging services try to block children under 13 is to comply with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. The act requires children younger than 13 to have verifiable parental consent before they can disclose personal information to a commercial service. But, because these services are all about sharing, it’s nearly impossible to operate without collecting personal information.
In other words, “officially,” these services are for teens and adults, which is one reason it’s disturbing that younger children sneak in. Facebook has privacy protections for teens under 18, but these protections aren’t designed for younger children who lack the maturity to navigate the choppy waters of social media.
Facebook has long been looking for a way to serve children under 13. In 2011, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said, “That will be a fight we take on at some point. … My philosophy is that for education you need to start at a really, really young age.”
Messenger Kids, announced Monday, isn’t exactly an education app, but it’s tailored to give kids 6 to 12 the ability to engage in conversations as well as exchange messages, videos and images with parent-approved friends and family. The app also allows kids to send photos, videos and text messages to approved adults, who receive the messages on their Facebook Messenger app. Kids also have access to a pre-approved library of stickers, GIFs, masks, frames and drawing tools to decorate their content.
I was pre-briefed on the app in my capacity as chief executive officer of ConnectSafely.org, a nonprofit internet safety organization that receives support and advises several tech companies, including Facebook.
One big difference between Messenger Kids and other social media apps is that parents have to set up the accounts. Kids aren’t allowed to do it. Parents must approve all contacts, and kids can’t communicate with anyone who isn’t pre-approved.
Another difference is that there is no advertising, and Facebook says that kids’ data is not collected for commercial purposes.
It’s also not a backdoor into other Facebook products. The company said that it doesn’t plan to automatically migrate children to Facebook, Instagram, Messenger or any other service when they turn 13. Facebook also pledges not to intermingle data between Messenger Kids and other Facebook apps and services.
Children and their parents can remove contacts for any reason and can report inappropriate content. They can also block contacts, which prevents communication and also hides the child from that person.
Because of the approval process, Messenger Kids greatly minimizes so-called “stranger danger,” but it doesn’t eliminate the need for oversight and internet safety training. When it comes to abuse, kids are statistically at greater risk from family members, family friends and other trusted adults than from strangers they meet online.
Parents also need to think about how much time they allow their kids to use this or any other app. Although they no longer issue arbitrary guidelines, the Academy of Pediatrics and most other experts agree that screen time needs to be balanced with other activities, including in-person relationships, exercise and other forms of play and communication.
Parents also need to discuss digital citizenship with their children. I’m not aware of any technology that can completely prevent cyberbullying or other forms of abuse. Children need to learn how to behave and what to do if someone posts something that makes them uncomfortable. ConnectSafely, Family Online Safety Institute and other groups publish guides, tip sheets and other educational materials for both parents and kids.
I think of Facebook Messenger as training wheels for social media and messaging. It’s also like a sandbox. Kids can injure themselves in sandboxes, but they’re a lot safer than playing in the street.
While limiting screen time is important, we’ve already crossed the threshold. A recent Common Sense Media survey of parents of children younger than 8 found a “spike in the number of young children who have their own tablet device (42 percent up from 8 percent in 2013) and that young children are spending an average of 48 minutes a day using mobile devices. It is higher when you factor in 10- to 12-year-olds.
Whatever the age, what’s important is how children are using these devices, whether they’re setting aside time for other activities and what it is they’re actually doing online. That’s where old-fashioned parenting comes in. Facebook and other tech companies can provide parents with tools, but technology can’t replace engaged, involved and empathetic parenting.
Larry Magid is a tech journalist and internet safety activist.
Magid: What parents need to know about Facebook Messenger Kids