Around 100 child advocates and experts are urging Facebook to discontinue its new Messenger Kids app over concerns that it will “undermine children’s healthy development.”
In a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Tuesday, 19 groups — including the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, ACLU of Massachusetts, and Parents Across America — called the company’s move to launch the app “irresponsible,” especially in light of research indicating that excessive use of social media is detrimental to children and teens.
“Younger children are simply not ready to have social media accounts,” the groups wrote. “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.”
In their letter, the groups cited research indicating that social media use by teens is linked to “significantly higher rates of depression,” as well as body-image issues and unhealthy sleep habits. Plus, research shows that 50 percent of adolescents already report feeling addicted to their phones — a problem Messenger Kids will likely “exacerbate,” they predicted.
“The app’s overall impact on families and society is likely to be negative, normalizing social media use among young children and creating peer pressure for kids to sign up for their first account,” they wrote.
Introduced last month for iOS devices, Messenger Kids is Facebook’s first app built specifically for children. The ad-free app can be installed on a child’s Apple smartphone or tablet, but controlled from a parent’s Facebook account. When they open up the app, kids see a list of approved contacts they can call for a one-on-one or group video chat. The app offers virtual masks, emoji, and sound effects plus a library of “kid-appropriate” GIFs, frames, stickers, and drawing tools.
Facebook tells PCMag it has no plans to discontinue the Messenger Kids app any time soon.
“We continue to be focused on making Messenger Kids be the best experience it can be for families,” the company wrote. “We have been very clear that there is no advertising in Messenger Kids.”
The social network said it developed the app with the help of “an advisory committee of parenting and developmental experts,” including the “families themselves” and the Parent Teacher Association.
“Since we launched in December we’ve heard from parents around the country that Messenger Kids has helped them stay in touch with their children and has enabled their children to video chat with fun masks with family members near and far,” the company wrote. “For example, we’ve heard stories of parents working night shifts being able read bedtime stories to their children, and moms who travel for work getting daily updates from their kids while they’re away.”
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. “Messenger Kids is not responding to a need – it is creating one,” the groups wrote.
Facebook says Messenger Kids lets kids “chat in a safer way,” since parents can control their messaging contacts and interactions. For more, check out PCMag’s hands on with Messenger Kids.
The criticism of Messenger Kids comes after Zuckerberg made it his 2018 mission to fix the social networking site he started. “The world feels anxious and divided, and Facebook has a lot of work to do,” the Facebook CEO wrote in a post early this month. He pointed to the abuse and hate on the platform, along with foreign attempts to spread misinformation, and social networking’s effect on a person’s well being.
In December, Facebook acknowledged that passively reading your news feed isn’t always good for your mental health. Those who interact with posts (commenting, liking, etc.) tend to feel better about themselves than those who just scroll and scroll, the company found.
YouTube, meanwhile, has also run into trouble with YouTube Kids, where advocates were concerned about ads on the service for products like Coca-Cola and Oreos.