In the second of two posts looking at the debates surrounding the new Facebook Messenger for Kids app, Alicia Blum-Ross outlines some of the concerns. She argues that we need to know more about whether the app will meet users’ real needs and offer the support that under-13s may require. She also asks if it will lead to more social media platforms trying to engage younger children for commercial reasons. Read the first post about the potential positives the app offers here. 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: Igor Starkov on Unsplash]

On Wednesday, I kicked off my summary of the controversy around Facebook’s new Messenger Kids with my take on the arguments for the app. Today I’ll consider some of the concerns.

1. Is this necessary?

There is a looming question about whether Messenger Kids constructs a problem that Facebook can solve (and make money by doing so), or whether it fulfils a currently unmet need. Many, including the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood’s letter to Mark Zuckerberg imploring him to take down the app, say that if one of the main rationales is for kids to contact relatives, then they can already use their parents’ Facebook, Skype or WhatsApp (etc.) accounts and that they do not need, themselves, to be pulled into social media to do so. So is what is already available sufficient? Yes and no.

I have interviewed many families who are using digital services to keep in contact. Families who use WhatsApp to remind each other of the grocery list or to check when kids get home from school; parents who have communicated – sometimes for years – with their faraway relatives or even their own children over video chat. Digital media are deeply valued by families as a means of keeping in touch (so the aside in the CCFC letter that families should just “pick up the phone” if they want to call relatives sits badly with me). There’s an underlying equity issue here. For example, in writing about differences between privileged and less-privileged middle-schoolers (12- to 14-year-olds) in New York, Christo Sims observed:

“While privileged families, and especially professional parents of girls, tended to view sites like Facebook as youth-centred social space to which their children should be prohibited access until they were older (which ended up happening in 7th or 8th grade for many of these students), many of the less-privileged students had already been on Facebook for several years… Many of these early adopters had been introduced to social media by family members that were geographically distributed, and many had received hand-me-down cell phones so that various adult members of their families could coordinate child rearing alongside work schedules and other commitments. p.124.”

There are many under-13s on Facebook, and, of these, many are from under-resourced families who use it as a valued tool. Perhaps, as the letter suggests, it is fine for parents to give their children selective access to their adult tools like Facebook itself, Skype or WhatsApp, given that these are not intentionally ‘gamified’ and therefore less likely to draw children in. But given that in reality few parents have the time or resources to supervise these 100% of the time this hardly seems sufficient. I believe that kids are better served by using services that are specifically designed with their needs in mind, that are bound by child-specific data protection laws, and that involve collaboration with child-development experts, parents and educators. So yes, Messenger Kids seems to be designed for an existing need, but I don’t know yet whether it will be used by the children who need it most (and are least-protected by existing services), nor with what impact.

2. Commercialism

Speaking of data protection… Facebook has said there will be no advertising on Messenger Kids (again, in accordance with COPPA) and no selling of children’s data. The second point is a little woolly – they won’t sell the data to advertisers but they will use the data to “provide, improve and develop services”. So essentially the registration information and data in the conversations on the platform will be collected and used to improve it – but it will also presumably be used for some potentially well-primed Instagram and Facebook accounts when the kids turn 13. Messenger Kids says the service is ‘standalone’ and there is no automatic transfer of services or opening of new accounts, but surely it creates a strong burgeoning brand awareness.

So while there’s no advertising in Messenger Kids, the whole app could basically be considered as an advertisement for Facebook itself, since it creates a context in which children are engaging with the brand and starting to understand its possibilities, curate their contacts, create valued assets and more. Facebook has been struggling to retain younger users so we can question why, rather than facing the practically challenging (if not impossible) task of kicking users off their platforms, it may want to make the platform attractive for younger children. There’s a real worry that where Facebook goes others might follow – creating a new war for the attention of under-13s. This is concerning as, whether or not you believe Facebook engaged in this process responsibly (which I do, despite there being some controversy), there are many other actors who certainly will not.

3. Social media is ‘addictive’

Some of the most vocal critiques of Messenger Kids, like the letter to Apple from its investors, have had a blatantly protectionist bent. The letter heavily references research that claims that young people have experienced a significant downturn in mental health that is purportedly linked to the introduction of the smartphone and the availability of social media. So advocates are questioning what can be done to protect children from these seemingly inevitable harms.

Before proceeding I should say that there are many critiques of the research on which these arguments are based. First, that the evidence used has been cherry-picked, and isn’t nearly as conclusive as claimed, nor are the changes as ‘sudden’. Second, that the research conflates correlation and causality – so that many of the supposed impacts of social media could also have other explanations. Little of this research actually considers what kids, and parents, want from their use of technology – or how digital media is, or might be, used in positive ways to support children’s mental health and well-being. It seems the simplistic ‘effects’ story – in which technology is considered in isolation and seen as doing things to young people but not for them – wins out, again. This means that the whole debate reads, as Anne Collier described, like a “moral panic on steroids”.

In my opinion, the term ‘addiction,’ in all its intangibility (like the term ‘screen time’) displaces the more grounded conversations that might help parents and children actually determine what exactly they find problematic. That said, many parents and children use the term ‘addicted’ themselves. So whether or not this is a precise diagnosis, the challenges are real and deeply felt – even ‘normal’ use of technology can sometimes cause problems. Asking a six year old to navigate the ‘always on’ culture of social media seems unfair, given children and young people are developing physically, neurologically, and in terms of understanding of their place in the social world. So they may be extra sensitive to not wanting to leave a message unanswered, or to missing out on a fun virtual gathering, or to wanting to be ‘liked’.

Messenger Kids needs to tread carefully to help support kids as they come to understand the ‘rules’ of social media, and needs to be visionary in terms of changing the rules of the game itself. The tried-and-true business model for social media is that more users + more time on the network + more activity = more profit. That can’t work here (and, really, needs to be re-thought everywhere else too). The challenge is real – how can a service for kids be designed to support their communication and relational needs but not be ‘addictive’ (however that is defined)?

This has to start from the end goals and not from the technology. Messenger Kids needs to be intentional about how relationships are supported and not just build absorbing, ‘cool’ features. Some simple suggestions might be:

  • No push notifications
  • Features that also invite person-to-person interaction for those sitting next to each other for use with friends, siblings, parents or grandparents
  • Features that help visualise for children how they’re using the app, such as giving them and their parents both time- and content-based notifications so that they can together negotiate limits and appropriate use
  • Features that help children and parents visualise and valorise time away from the app as well as on it
  • Features (badges, even?) that help children understand and demonstrate their increasing responsibility as they ‘grow up’ in the app, for example by guiding younger siblings
  • Dis-incentivising always-on use – essentially designing whatever the opposite of Snapstreaks is

In addition to practical questions around the app’s design, I also hope that Facebook will commit to independent evaluation, and to making its own research transparent. This will help us understand whether the app is meeting users’ needs or whether it is creating new problems, and whether parents and children who need them are using the tools they provide.

Given that the current status quo doesn’t seem to be getting the balance right – between protecting children and also supporting their rights to participate, learn and create online – I welcome the conversations that the launch of Messenger Kids has started. I’ll be watching this space to see what diverse, thoughtful and accessible content and services for kids and parents might look like, and have measured hopes for Messenger Kids in accomplishing that.

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.