Facebook today announced a new version of its Messenger chat app designed for children ages six to 12. Called Messenger Kids, the new app does not require a Facebook account — due to federal law, users under the age of 13 cannot legally sign up for Facebook. Rather, parents are able to manage a child’s Messenger Kids app from their Facebook account, controlling which friends and family members the child is able to contact. Facebook is launching the app today in preview with a limited rollout on iOS.
Facebook says it’s going to great lengths to make sure the app does not come off as exploitative. “There are no ads in Messenger Kids and your child’s information isn’t used for ads. It is free to download and there are no in-app purchases,” the company writes in a blog post. Facebook says Messenger Kids is also designed to be compliant with the Children’s Online Privacy and Protection Act, or COPPA. That’s the federal law that protects underage children from exploitation online, and it’s the reason so many online services require children be 13 years of age or older in order to sign up. Facebook says the new app is only available in the US, with plans to expand its availability beyond iOS to the Amazon App Store and Google Play Store in the coming months.
Messenger Kids is primarily designed to offer video and text chat along with the types of playful masks and filters, originally popularized by Snapchat, that are now prevalent across Facebook’s many messaging products. Facebook says there is a “library of kid-appropriate and specially chosen GIFs, frames, stickers, masks and drawing tools lets them decorate content and express their personalities.” The app also gives parents the ability to control a child’s contact list, while a more spartan home screen shows pre-approved friends that are online and preexisting one-on-one chats and group threads.
To use the app, parents must download it from the App Store and then authenticate it with their Facebook user name and password. Only then can an account be created for a child, with the process requiring only a name for the profile. Contacts are added through an “Explore” section of the app that should let parents search and find other contacts. Users with existing Facebook accounts, like relatives, can create Messenger Kids accounts to chat with the children, with parents having control over which contacts are approved and show up as online when a child uses the app.
While on the surface Messenger Kids seems relatively innocuous, the underlying motive here cannot go unmentioned. Kids today have at their disposal a number of methods that allow them to communicate with friends and relatives, be it a traditional phone call, an email message, or perhaps even a text, if they have their own cell phone. What children don’t have access to is social networks like Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, and YouTube. That because’s of laws like COPPA, implemented because lawmakers determined that, without robust protections, it’s reasonable to think children will be exploited online by predators, advertisers, and others.
Now Facebook is creating a pipeline for children to become regular users of its products, starting as young as six years old, by claiming to offer an alternative better than what it exists today.
Facebook seems to recognize how this will all look to the public, and it’s using a clever defense to defect criticism. In a separate blog post titled, “Hard Questions,” Facebook’s Public Policy Director Antigone Davis writes, “Children today are online earlier and earlier. They use family-shared devices — and many, as young as six or seven years old, even have their own.”
She goes on to point out that “research shows that kids are using apps that are intended for teens and adults.” Davis says Facebook collaborated with National PTA on a study showing observing 1,200 American parents of children under the age of 13, with three out of every five parents saying kids under 13 are already using messaging apps, while 81 percent say their kids stated using social media apps as early as eight. So Facebook’s pitch to parents is pretty much: use Messenger Kids, because at the very least you can control what your child does with our app.
Employees of the company, and those who created this product, may have good intentions, and it’s clear Facebook is following the legal protocols to prevent abuse. But it’s still worth pointing out that Facebook is going after the next generation of users by targeting children. It’s not far-fetched to assume that child users of Messenger Kids will be more likely to want a Facebook account, and that Facebook will make it easier in the future to migrate a child’s Messenger Kids account over to the main app.
The social network has for years used strategic acquisitions and developed copycat products to prevent its user base from fleeing to competitors and to capture younger users. Look at its purchases of Instagram and WhatsApp, its extensive moves to kill Snapchat, and its in-progress cloning of Houseparty, a group messaging app that informed Facebook’s Bonfire. One thing none of those products have is a viable messaging product for six-year-old children, which Facebook is now happy to provide, regardless of how distasteful it appears to be.