Facebook Urged To Scrap Messaging App For Kids

Facebook's new messaging service for pre-teens is likely to "undermine children’s healthy development," advocates say in a new letter to CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

"Younger children are simply not ready to have social media accounts," the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, ACLU of Massachusetts, Common Sense Media and others write. The groups are urging Zuckerberg to shut down the new service.

Messenger Kids, aimed at children 12 and younger, enables kids to interact with contacts approved by parents. The app allows for users to engage in one-on-one or group chats, and send photos, videos or text messages to contacts. Facebook isn't running ads on Messenger Kids and says that children's data won't be used for ad targeting.

The watchdogs say that young children aren't able to "navigate the complexities of online relationships," and 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 groups add that the service will spur children to spend even more time online. "Almost half of parents say that regulating their child’s screen time is a constant battle," the letter says. "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."

The new messaging service has also drawn scrutiny on Capitol Hill. When Facebook first announced the tool, Senators Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) expressed concerns about what would happen to sensitive information collected through the app.

But not everyone has sounded the alarm about Messenger Kids. The watchdog organization Center for Digital Democracy, which helped to pass the federal privacy law Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, the Children's Privacy Protection Act, praised Facebook's launch of the new service.

"In its first formal move to enter the children’s digital marketplace, Facebook has taken a responsible approach to this sensitive age group," American University professor Kathryn Montgomery, a consultant with CDD, stated last month. But she added that services like the app need to be monitored.

Facebook said Tuesday that the app helps parents and children chat safely. "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," a company spokesperson stated. "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." 

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