Child development experts call for Facebook to scrap Messenger Kids app

30 Jan 2018

A new letter raises concerns about social media and child development. Image: anna.danilkova/Shutterstock

A group made up of advocates, civil society groups and medical experts has implored Facebook to pull Messenger Kids.

Facebook launched a child-friendly version of its Messenger app in December 2017, with features including parental controls and an absence of advertising. The launch was an effort to address concerns from parents about the safety of social media platforms for their children.

Geared towards under-13s, Messenger Kids was flagged as an app created responsibly for children to use. At its launch, Facebook’s head of global safety, Antigone Davis, said: “We know that when building for kids, we have to get it right, and we’re taking that responsibility seriously.”

Advocates expressing worry

Today (30 January), an open letter led by Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood was published, imploring Facebook to pull the app.

The letter said that children are not ready for the reality of having social media accounts. “They are not old enough to navigate the complexities of online relationships, which often lead to misunderstandings and conflicts even among more mature users.

“They also do not have a fully developed understanding of privacy, including what’s appropriate to share with others and who has access to their conversations, pictures and videos.”

The letter also cited the mounting concerns about how social media use affects adolescents and other young people, as evidenced by the recent letter from Apple stakeholders outlining their concerns over smartphone ‘addiction’.

Screen time is already a contentious issue

The advocates raised the prospect of Messenger Kids leading to increased time spent by children on digital devices, and the difficulties this would then cause in families who already struggle with this issue. “Messenger Kids will exacerbate this problem, as the anticipation of friends’ responses will be a powerful incentive for children to check – and stay on – a phone or tablet.”

At the launch of the app, Facebook said it would be useful for children to stay in contact with long-distance relatives but the letter made the point that children can use parental accounts or even a standard phone to talk.

The organisations concluded by saying that the best course of action would be to leave social media out of the equation for young children entirely. “The app’s overall impact on families and society is likely to be negative, normalising social media use among young children and creating peer pressure for kids to sign up for their first account.”

Organisations backing the letter include Parents Across America and Common Sense Media, while individual signatories include Prof Sherry Turkle and Tim Winter, president of the Parents Television Council.

John Oates, senior lecturer at the Open University and child psychological development specialist, told TechCrunch that social media use in children is a challenging concept. A positive aspect is seeing differing points of view in a digital world, but there are numerous risks that go along with children accessing social networks.

When asked to comment, Facebook noted the collaborative process in making the app. “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 the PTA.”

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects