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Facebook’s New Messenger App For Kids Raises a Lot of Questions

‘Messenger Kids’ offers kids a complicated introduction into the world of social networking.

For kids under 13 who are hungry for some Facebook-ish action, there’s good news: the social media giant released an app called Messenger Kids today geared specifically towards youngins, as Emily Price writes for Fast Company.

Kids under 13 still aren’t allowed to have full Facebook accounts, to be clear. But with Messenger Kids (available for iOS devices now and rolling out to other devices in the near future), those under 13 will be able to message each other—with a whole lot of parental oversight.

Here’s how it works: a parent can sign up their kid for Messenger Kids through their own personal Facebook account. Their kid won’t have a traditional Facebook profile, but will able to talk to friends that have been approved or requested by the parents. (Parents can “request friends on behalf of their kids from their own Facebook account,” Hanna Kozlowska writes for Quartz.) Messages will be “sent and received exclusively from a smartphone, tablet, or web-connected device such as an iPod touch and are controlled by Mom and Dad,” Price writes, and kids’ names won’t show up in searches for other Messenger users. Plus, all of the conversations are monitored and never disappear. If the app’s algorithms detect something inappropriate or hurtful, the message in question won’t send, Price notes. Kids can also report inappropriate behavior, which triggers a message that goes to the parent of the kid who was reported.

The app apparently has some fun stuff thrown in for kids like gifs, masks and stickers. It’s intended to create a safer way for kids to talk to each other online, as Antigone Davis, the public policy director and global head of safety for Facebook, writes in a post announcing the new feature. But there’s a lot of concern, rightfully so, about how young kids should be when they start using social networking technology, and how to deal with the inevitable fact that kids will see bad stuff online.

For many reasons, Messenger Kids raises questions about where the line is between protecting kids online and giving parents undue power over their children’s social lives. Teaching kids how to use social media and the internet responsibly is key, but choosing who they talk to is not a surefire way to protect kids from the evils of the internet. Plus, if Facebook’s existing algorithm-snafus tell us anything (the company has a bad track record about spotting harmful content, to put the issue mildly), it’s that even the best-intentioned protections against harmful content can go very, very awry.

The announcement champions monitoring as a solution to the fact that kids have access to devices earlier and earlier: the post cites data from the research firm Dubit showing that 93 percent of kids in the U.S. between 6 and 12 years old have access to tablets or smartphones, and 66 percent have their own device.

But there are inherent problems with this. First of all, just because kids have access to these devices doesn’t mean they should be using them. And it establishes a fear-based method of teaching kids how to properly use the internet: by giving them this Facebook-Lite, are parents really preparing their future teens for the horrors of the digital world?

The post then goes on to outline that a huge concern for the parents of these kids is about what they’re saying online: the post says, “we created Messenger Kids with the belief that parents are ultimately the best judges of their kids’ technology use, and the parents we’ve spoken to have asked for a better way to control the way their children message.”

This statement seems, well, wrong for a myriad of reasons. For one, parents aren’t necessarily the best gatekeepers for their kids’ internet use seeing as many adults are addicted to social media, including Facebook, and may be setting an example that overuse is the norm.

And conveniently for Facebook, the emphasis on controlling who your kid is talking to, rather than opening a conversation about how kids should use technology at this age, or what that means, glosses over the fact that kids need to be taught the benefits of a life lived relatively offline. Not to mention the many other issues linked to young kids and screens, from sleep deprivation to depression and social anxiety.

And then of course there’s the fact that Facebook may just be grooming a future generation of users. As Price notes, “when the children who use it turn 13, they’ll be primed for full-fledged Facebook, no coaxing required.”

Read more on Fast Company and Quartz

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