In the first of two posts looking at alternative sides of the debate surrounding the new Facebook Messenger for Kids app, Alicia Blum-Ross considers the potential positives it offers. She argues that the platform provides the opportunity for under-13s to begin to use social media and develop their digital literacy skills together with their parents. The next post on Friday will contrastingly look at the concerns surrounding the app. Alicia Blum-Ross is a researcher at LSE’s Department of Media and Communications and is part of the Parenting for a Digital Future research project. [Header image credit: GSCNSJ, CC BY-NC 2.0]

From dodgy content on YouTube to iPhones turning kids into addicts, the past few months have seen a litany of controversial stories about kids and tech emerge – instigating some tough questions about what industry and parents should be doing to keep kids safe and support their health and well-being both on digital media and beyond it.

Recently, the conversation has landed on Facebook’s new Messenger Kids, an app that Facebook launched in December in the US. Messenger Kids is an extension of Facebook that allows parents to set up an account for under-13-year-olds (who are otherwise barred, in principle, from Facebook in accordance with COPPA regulations) so that they can connect with ‘parent-approved’ contacts in a ‘controlled environment’ through calls and messaging (enhanced by Snapchat-like stickers, masks and sound effects).

Facebook has described how Messenger Kids was developed with child-safety and media literacy experts and advocates, and describes it as a practical way of safely and easily helping children and relatives connect. However critics, including a consortium of organisations led by the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood (CCFC) and Common Sense Media, have questioned whether the app will simply hook ever-younger kids into the always-on culture of social media, and have asked Facebook to take the service down.

Today and Friday I’ll offer my take – summarising arguments both ‘for’ (today) and ‘against’ (Friday) Messenger Kids. This is my opinion and not necessarily that of the rest of the Parenting for a Digital Future team who have their own conclusions – and if I’ve done a reasonable job here I hope you’ll also have enough information to form your own.*

1. Limiting contact from strangers

At the same time as the debate around Messenger Kids was unfolding, I saw several reports that young kids had encountered inappropriate contact and content on the popular game Roblox. A letter to parents from a primary-school headteacher in the UK warned that many children had confessed they’d received contact from strangers or seen the characters in sexual positions, and had not told their parents. Roblox, like many other kids’ games, does not have age restrictions but does have in-built social communication functions. The company provides settings for parents to be able to curate the experience of kids under 13 but I’m not optimistic about how many parents actually use these (Roblox, let us know your feedback!). Worrisome content has also been found on the platform Musical.ly, which is used by millions of under-13s (although also for good – some colleagues are working on a piece on civic engagement on the platform as I write). This is precisely a rationale for Messenger Kids – by creating a ‘walled garden‘, parents can keep an eye on what kids are doing and who they are receiving messages from.

The truth is, many kids are already using games that have a social networking component within them, even though the CCFC letter says, “younger children are simply not ready to have social media accounts.” In 2017, 74% of 12- to 15-year-olds and 23% of British 8- to 11-year-olds already had a social media account, and 12% of under-8s in the US had already used social games online. Those figures are probably low given that many parents I’ve interviewed don’t actually seem to know that games like Minecraft have social functions within them.

At the end of the day, Messenger Kids’ very safety features mean it is less likely to be used by kids who are pushing the boundaries, as they’ve probably already found their way around age restrictions (as that’s not hard to do), or are on sites that are less likely to be responsible about monitoring this in the first place. Given this, to me, Messenger Kids reflects the current reality and tries to build practical tools for dealing with things as they are.

2. Social media ‘training wheels’

Messenger Kids is billed as a way to, as Larry Magid (who consulted on the app development) described, give your kids ‘training wheels’ before they’re let loose in the world of regular over-13 social media. There seems to be debate over whether Messenger Kids is a messaging app (like WhatsApp) or a social network (like Facebook), or whether it might incorporate a social gaming app (like Minecraft), and with what implications.

I am of the belief that there is no magic age at which all children are ‘ready’ for smartphones or social media. Some may be able to navigate the social pressures earlier. Some may have family reasons (for example walking home from school) that necessitate them being contactable. Some parents feel confident having conversations about image sharing. Some kids are more drawn in by peer pressure (what’s called ‘differential susceptibility’). Some kids don’t have access to computers and so do their homework on mobile devices. All of these are contextual reasons why your kid may or may not be ready, or why an app like Messenger Kids may or may not be useful.

If your family circumstances require it, and you as a parent can support it, Messenger Kids actually seems a well-researched and thought-out option. Let’s not have our heads in the sand – kids are on social media, so while Facebook has designed the app to meet the need of developing a safer way of being connected, it also needs to demonstrate that this is healthier for kids, in terms of their physical and mental well-being (see Friday’s post).

3. For grown-ups and kids

There has been some research, both on the positive outcomes to be had from giving kids spaces to safely connect online, and on the risks presented by platforms that are insufficiently moderated, or even sometimes when they are. Consider platforms that already have or had 6- to 12-year-olds on them, for example the art/creative sharing platform PopJam, the social sharing aspect of Scratch (the coding platform for kids), the social possibilities of Minecraft or the now-defunct Club Penguin and the number of under-13s already using services like Instagram or Snapchat. Examining any one of these shows that platforms made for kids give them better and safer opportunities to create and explore, but that any platform brings some risks.

What this list also highlights is that parents are not regularly on these platforms. Sure, Scratch is educator-led and sometimes you find parent- or educator-moderated Minecraft servers (like this cool one) but these aren’t the rule. Some of the biggest barriers that parents report about getting involved in their children’s digital lives are that they can’t keep up with all the services children use (or get intimidated or annoyed by them) and they don’t have time to oversee lots of different platforms. Messenger Kids speaks a language parents already understand, in a place they already are. The hope is that this makes it easier for parents to start conversations and for them to mentor their children as they gain these essential (digital) life skills.

4. Digital literacy

In some ways, COPPA has served as a convenient excuse for companies to, as danah boyd wrote, stop “innovating for children or providing services that could really help them”. In effect that has meant a lot of winks and nods and not a lot of support, as kids instead find services that were not designed with their needs in mind (indeed, parents often help). The question is whether Messenger Kids will lead parents and children to have more conversations about the implicit and explicit rules of what is appropriate on social networks – by making them more visible and shared as a family. The idea here is to afford kids some level of (measured) independence, ideally so they can build their digital literacy together with their parents. Messenger Kids will be good or bad for kids depending on how it’s used and supported, but the hope is that the app might provide opportunities to negotiate family norms.

However, since parents have relative control over the platform (they can manage contacts but not see the content of messages unless the child is using it on the parents’ device or the parent has the password) there is every chance that parents will use their digital skills not to teach their kids but to monitor and police them. This is not actually an effective tactic for keeping kids safe nor indeed even for reducing ‘screen time’ in the longer term. The claims about digital literacy seem to me an open question – we’ll need solid evidence to understand over the long term whether the app is accomplishing these aims or is simply a diverting (potential) spying platform.

At its most ambitious, Messenger Kids could be helpful in conveniently and safely connecting children with each other and with their relatives – and in starting conversations about relationships, boundaries, creativity and connections that can benefit the next generation as they ‘come of age’ within and beyond social media. These are the hopes and the arguments for Messenger Kids – tune in on Friday for the concerns.

Notes


*Disclosure – I have been part of conversations with Facebook about the app in my roles as a researcher and as a consultant, but I have not been paid by Facebook. These conversations have informed my thinking, but I will not reference them directly here.

This post gives the views of the authors and does not represent the position of the LSE Parenting for a Digital Future blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.