Technology & Science·Analysis

What parents need to know about Facebook's new messenger app for kids

Facebook has launched Messenger Kids, a messaging app for children under 13 that lets them send texts, videos and photographs as well as add stickers and doodle on their photos. So what could go wrong?

Social networking giant's first product aimed at children raises issue of consent to use their data

A screenshot from the promotional video for Facebook Messenger Kids shows how the messaging app for children under 13 lets them send texts, videos and photographs, as well as add stickers and doodle on their photos. (Facebook)

Your nine-year-old daughter wants her own Facebook account.

"Not until you're older," you want to say. After all, users need to be at least 13 years old to create a Facebook account.

Or, at least that used to be the case.

It's a safe way to get their brand into the family young.- Richard Lachman, Ryerson University

In the United States, as of Monday, Facebook has launched Messenger Kids, a messaging app for children under 13 that lets them send texts, videos and photographs, as well as add stickers and doodle on their photos.

The app is Facebook's first product aimed at young children, and its foray into the kids market, the coveted demographic that could bring the social giant their next billion users.

"I'm guessing there will be a seamless path to migrate to the full Facebook and Messenger upon reaching 13," says Richard Lachman, an associate professor at Ryerson University and director of research development for the Faculty of Communication and Design. "There is a thought that patterns you establish early on will become defaults behaviours," which is especially true of Facebook he adds "given that it's harder to leave a service if a critical mass of friends are already part of it."

So, what could go wrong?

This photo provided by Facebook demonstrates its new Messenger app for kids on an iPhone. Facebook is launching the messaging app for children to chat with their parents and with friends approved by their parents. (Facebook)

Messenger itself is fairly harmless, says Lachman, likening it to SMS (text messaging), which has no minimum age requirement. As a chat tool, there's limited concern about bullying or filter bubbles or the spread of misinformation that we've come to expect on Facebook proper.

"That's why Facebook is doing this, of course — it's a safe way to get their brand into the family young."

Messenger Kids won't have any ads, nor will the data from the app be ported over to Facebook proper, so that, let's say, parents see ads for toys or other things their kids are talking about. According to Facebook, the app gives parents control. Only the child's first name is required, and if a parent decides to delete the Messenger Kids account, all of the associated data will be deleted from Facebook's servers.

But, he adds, the social networking giant "will want to use this as a gateway … more than any other social media platform, Facebook is planning on long-term and on being part of many aspects of our lives."

After all, the platform has become one of the most valuable companies in the world, despite never charging its users a cent, by recording everything we say, do and post online, and profiting from the sale of that data. By attracting new users to Messenger Kids when they're young, Facebook has the potential to convert them into full users of the social network as they come of age. And more users equals more profit, as simple as that.

What age is appropriate?

But while the social network is quick to point out that its new kids app requires parental permission, it also catapults them right to the centre of the debate over what age is appropriate for children to start engaging with digital tools, which is an increasingly hot topic, especially as we've seen the dark side of social media emerge.

This photo provided by Facebook demonstrates parental controls on its new Messenger app for kids. (Facebook/Associated Press)

The last few years have made it clear that services like Facebook are about a whole lot more than just sharing photos and taking personality quizzes; they've been used to sway elections and spread propaganda; they've fostered cyberbullying and fuelled people's anxiety. And yet, we continue to use them anyway.

And therein lies the biggest concern about a Facebook product targeting children: Parents may give their kids permission to download the app, which requires mom or dad to use their Facebook email address and password to activate their child's account, but is it really up to adults to grant permission when their kids don't fully understand what they are consenting to?

Moreover, how can children truly consent to the social bargain of service-for-data, when even adults don't seem to fully understand its magnitude?

"I think most people, adults included don't think about surveillance, data collection, propaganda or the filter bubble. So how can someone below the age of 13 be able to make sense of these things?" says Jaigris Hodson, head of the Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies program at Royal Roads University.

She adds, "Facebook has a vested interest in gaming us and our psychology so that we are compelled to come back as much as possible and interact on the site."

As adults — well aware of the mounting pile of evidence of how a platform like Facebook may be damaging everything from our psyches to our political processes — we continue to log in and use the service even though we may know better, because really, it's become the best way for us to keep in touch.

Platform's full impact unknown

Being a new parent, it's an inner debate I've found myself struggling with daily. On one hand, I want to share all of my little one's adorable photos with my network of friends and family. But on the other hand, I have a knot in my stomach thinking about subjecting my sweet little baby to an online ecosystem that we know is doing us more damage than good. I can't help but feel guilty about creating a digital archive of her life without her consenting to it.

Many parents, including Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan, have posted pictures of their children online. But we still don't know the full impact these troves of data will have 10 or 20 years down the road, Ramona Pringle writes. (Charles Ommanney/Facebook/Associated Press)

After all, we still don't know the full impact these troves of data will have 10 or 20 years down the road. That's true for parents posting pictures of their kids, and true for parents considering giving their young children the "OK" to enter the Facebook ecosystem with this new kid-friendly app.

As for Messenger Kids, Hodson says, "Your child doesn't need Facebook, they need digital literacy so that when they're old enough they can process the information available and decide whether they really want this in their lives."

Of course, all of this presumes that kids actually want to use Facebook in the first place. The social network is seen by tweens and teens as an app that only "old people" use, while younger users tend to congregate elsewhere, seeking out the latest and greatest app that can be their own digital territory, away from adults.

"If younger kids are mimicking a pattern they already see their parents using but through a platform made for them, they might keep using it," Lachman says. "For slightly older kids, that's the last thing they'd want to be seen doing."

So in that way, the debate over Messenger Kids isn't about kids at all. It's another opportunity for us adults to examine our relationship with the ever-encroaching data behemoth.

About the Author

Ramona Pringle

Technology Columnist

Ramona Pringle is an associate professor in Faculty of Communication and Design and director of the Creative Innovation Studio at Ryerson University. She is a CBC contributor who writes and reports on the relationship between people and technology.