Less than two months after the launch of MessengerKids, Facebook’s new child-focused correspondence app has received backlash from child-health advocates, including a plea directly to Mark Zuckerberg to pull the plug. On January 30th, the Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood published an open letter compiled and signed by over 110 medical professionals, educators, and child development experts, which accuses the tech giant of forsaking its promise to “do better” for society and targeting children under 13 to enter the world of social media.
At its introduction in early December 2017, MessengerKids was branded as another tool for parents struggling to raise children in the digital age. After installing the app on their child’s device(s), parents can control their child’s contact list from their own Facebook account. The app has kid-friendly gifs, frames, and stickers, built in screening for age-inappropriate content in conversations, and a reporting feature for both parents and children to hopefully combat cyberbullying. It contains no advertisements, and the child’s personal information isn’t collected, in accordance with US federal law. Creating an account does not create a Facebook profile, but nonetheless, the service introduces children to social media and their own online presence.
Contrary to the image MessengerKids hoped to present, child-health advocates have interpreted the application less as a gatekeeper for online safety and more as a gateway for unhealthy online habits. In its letter to Mark Zuckerberg, the CCFC cites multiple studies linking screen time and social media presence to depression and negative mental health effects. In addition, the app will interfere with the development of social skills, like the “ability to read human emotion, delay gratification, and engage in the physical world.” The letter argues that the connectivity MessengerKids promises is not an innovation, as these communication methods already exist with parent’s approval or supervision (e.g. Skype or parents’ Facebook accounts); nor does the app provide the solution for underage Facebook accounts, as there’s little incentive for those users to migrate to a service with fewer features designed for younger kids. Instead, it reads as a play to bring users onboard even earlier but marketing specifically to the untapped, under 13 audience.
In addition to the psychological development concerns, a user’s early-instilled brand trust may surpass the perceived importance of privacy later on. Data spread and usage is already a foggy concept to adults, and young children certainly won’t understand the consequences of sharing personal information. This is what the US federal law (“COPPA”) hopes to mitigate by protecting underage users from targeted data collection. MessengerKids normalizes an online identity early on, so young users may not consider the risks of sharing their data with Facebook or other online services once they age out of COPPA protection. The prioritization of online identity that MessengerKids may propagate presents a developmental concern which may affect how those after generation Z value online privacy and personal data collection.
While Facebook seems to have done its homework by engaging a panel of child-development and family advocates, this could be another high-risk situation for user trust, especially in the midst of the fake-news controversy. Facebook’s discussions with its team of advisors are neither publicly available nor subject to the review process of academic or medical research. With the CCFC’s public backlash, parents who wouldn’t have questioned the feature otherwise may now perceive the impact of the app and its introduction as a medical decision for their child’s health. A curated panel of experts may not be enough to assure parents that Facebook does, in fact, care about kids as more than potential users. The app has no built-in capability to report or prevent cyberbullying, so if Facebook is concerned about unmitigated online activity why not just enforce the existing policy of age restrictions?
Comparing the “benefits” of this service to the developmental risks, the private business interests have clearly outweighed Facebook’s concerns for users’ well-being. While changing social interactions has long been Facebook’s trademark, MessengerKids threatens to alter interpersonal relationships by molding the children who form them and could additionally undermine data responsibility by normalizing online presence at an early age. It appears that Facebook is willing to risk the current generation’s trust to gain the next generation’s- a profitable, but not necessarily ethical decision.