Facebook brings its messaging app for kids to Canada despite experts' concerns

Messenger Kids has attracted criticism from some experts who argue that young children are not yet able to navigate the complexities of privacy and and social etiquette online. Facebook says the app was built with feedback from parents and experts.

Messenger Kids took feedback from parents and experts, says Facebook, but critics argue children aren't ready

Unlike the standard version of the Messenger, Facebook says that Messenger Kids does not include ads, allows parents to approve contacts and also limits when the app can be used. (Stephen Lam/Reuters)

A version of Facebook's popular text and video messaging app aimed at children under the age of 13 is now available in Canada, Facebook said on Friday, despite concerns from advocates that children are ill-equipped to use social media at such a young age.

Messenger Kids was first made available in the United States at the end of last year, and has been pitched as a means for parents to let their kids chat with close friends and family in a safer and more controlled environment than other messaging apps.

However, Messenger Kids has attracted criticism from some experts who argue that young children are not yet able to navigate the complexities of privacy and social etiquette online, and that an increase in screen time could interfere with the development of healthy relationship skills that otherwise come from face-to-face interactions.

In January, more than 100 child advocates, civil society groups, medical experts and other individuals signed a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg outlining their concerns and asking that the app be discontinued.

Facebook says that it developed the app in collaboration with parents and experts — including the Canadian digital literacy organization MediaSmarts — and has taken their feedback into account. Some of those experts and their organizations have reportedly received research funding or donations from Facebook in recent years.

Unlike the standard version of the service, Facebook says that Messenger Kids does not include ads, and that kids' accounts are separate from standard Facebook accounts. It also allows parents to approve contacts and limit when the app can be used.

The Public Interest Advocacy Centre, a Canadian non-profit, also wrote a letter to Zuckerberg and Facebook's Canadian head of public policy, Kevin Chan, asking that the app not be released.

The centre's director, John Lawford, argued that Facebook has not adequately explained how it will use the information it collects when kids use the app. He also wrote that, "by encouraging children under 13 to use its services, Messenger Kids can capture kids young and keep them their whole lives."

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Matthew Braga

Senior Technology Reporter

Matthew Braga is the senior technology reporter for CBC News, where he covers stories about how data is collected, used, and shared. If you have a tip, you can contact this reporter securely using Signal or WhatsApp at +1 416 316 4872, or via email at matthew.braga@cbc.ca. For particularly sensitive messages or documents, consider using Secure Drop, an anonymous, confidential system for sharing encrypted information with CBC News.