02 February, 2018
At the time Facebook described Messenger Kids as an "easier and safer way" for kids to video chat and message with family and friends "when they can't be together in person" - and said the product had been "co-developed with parents, kids and experts".
The app works by letting its younger users set up a "child" profile, but nearly all of the functionality is entirely dependant on a regular "parent" Facebook account.
Upon announcing the launch of Messenger Kids, Facebook said it will not sell adverts on the app or use the data it collects for marketing purposes. "It appeals primarily to children who otherwise would not have their own social media accounts".
In a to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, the groups called on Facebook to end the app, noting that it will likely be "the first social media platform widely used by elementary school children".
Despite Facebook's reassurances that Messenger Kids simply wants to give kids a safe space to communicate online, child experts warn that using the app will be to the detriment of the children.
The letter cites a variety of studies that have demonstrated the effects of social media usage among teens, quoting various side effects including depressions, unhappiness, unhealthy sleep habits, and even eating disorders.
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The app aims to offer proper parental controls to encourage responsible communication. As Facebook mentions, the app is designed in a way to help kids connect with close friends and family from their tablet or smartphone, only with their parent's consent. The app aims to protect kids by tethering the app to a parent's account, requiring parental authorization to chat with new people, and more.
What do you think of Messenger Kids?
But the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and other child advocates argue that there are already plenty of ways kids can stay in touch with faraway relatives - from using a parent's Skype account, to just picking up the phone. But the 11- and 12- year-olds who now use Snapchat, Instagram, or Facebook are unlikely to switch to an app that is clearly designed for younger children.
The role of digital devices in children's lives is a growing concern in an increasingly plugged-in society.
"Encouraging kids to move their friendships online will interfere with and displace the face-to-face interactions and play that are crucial for building healthy developmental skills, including the ability to read human emotion, delay gratification, and engage with the physical world", the letter states.
The same day Facebook rolled out Messenger Kids, the company a new $1 million research fund to explore technology's long-term impact on children and pledged to share its findings publicly. The groups and individuals who oppose Messenger Kids are attempting to seize on that momentum and prompt a shift at Facebook and the industry.
"The whole idea of this tool is that parents are in control and can help scaffold their child's learning", said Lavallee.