Facebook is under fire from child health experts over its new app, Messenger Kids. In an open letter published today, co-signed by nineteen organizations and just under 100 advocates, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood has urged Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to pull the plug on the video chat app, citing research that suggests social media can have a detrimental impact on a child’s healthy development in early life.
Messenger Kids launched back in December as a heavily redesigned and streamlined version of Facebook’s regular chat app. Facebook pushed the app as a safe and secure way of letting under 13s chat online with friends and family.
The app works by letting its younger users set up a “child” profile, but almost all of the functionality is entirely dependant on a regular “parent” Facebook account. These controls, for example, require all contact requests to first be approved by the parent account.
Nevertheless, these strict safety measures, as well as assurances from Facebook that the app does not collect user data, have failed to stop a growing backlash from concerned parents, doctors, media, and teachers who argue that under 13s should not be encouraged to use social media in the first place. Now that debate has now culminated in a strongly-worded open letter addressed directly to Facebook’s co-founder and current chairman.
“Younger children are simply not ready to have social media accounts,” the letter reads. “They are not old enough to navigate the complexities of online relationships, which often lead to misunderstandings and conflicts even among more mature users.”
The letter cites research that links adolescent social media use to depression, body dysmorphia, unhealthy sleeping habits, and addiction to digital media on phones and other mobile devices.
It also directly addresses Facebook’s claim that Messenger Kids is a better alternative for parents concerned their child may have falsified details to create a full Facebook account:
The 11- and 12-year-olds who currently use Snapchat, Instagram, or Facebook are unlikely to switch to an app that is clearly designed for younger children. Messenger Kids is not responding to a need – it is creating one.
This was a concern I brought up when the app was first announced, and I have to agree with the advocates here. In a world where countless numbers of underage children already use fully-fledged Facebook accounts, those using the kid-friendly version are likely to be subject to a fair amount of peer-pressure to switch over.
Likewise, while there are some aspects of Facebook’s approach that ring true on the surface, it’s not hard to picture Messenger Kids as a gateway app for the next generation of Messenger users. You can read the full open letter and decide for yourself here.
In light of the letter’s publication, Facebook has issued a statement to the Washington Post. Facebook global head of safety, Antigone Davis, said:
We worked to create Messenger Kids with an advisory committee of parenting and developmental experts, as well as with families themselves and in partnership with National PTA. We continue to be focused on making Messenger Kids the best experience it can be for families. We have been very clear that there is no advertising in Messenger Kids.
What do you think of Messenger Kids? Is the app’s target audience really ready for social media? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.