Facebook could not have chosen a better moment to launch its Messenger Kids app in 70 new countries - Australia included. Here's everything parents need to know.
Do kids aged 6 to 12 really need a way to online chat? Before the present crisis, your answer might have been a firm “no.” But now, as coronavirus restrictions drag on, our kids are craving social connection as never before.
And, like the rest of us, their options have been severely limited. With schools, playgrounds and group activities closed, it’s a case of virtual socialising, or none at all.
Messenger Kids is a Facebook app aimed specifically at under-13s that lets kids video- or text-chat and exchange images and other content.
If that sounds slightly scary, you should also know that this version of the app is subject to stringent remote supervision by mums and dads.
A Facebook-commissioned study by IPSOS found 95% of kids aged 7 to 12 have access to a mobile device - but 61% of parents say they want more control over their children’s online experiences.
A Facebook-commissioned study by IPSOS found 95% of kids aged 7 to 12 have access to a mobile device - but 61% of parents say they want more control over their children’s online experiences. Messenger Kids aims to scratch that itch.
What could possibly go wrong?
And yet ... Facebook’s track record in cyber safety hardly inspires confidence, as many critics have been quick to point out. The online giant was fined US$5 billion last year for breaching user privacy. And its first version of Messenger Kids, launched in the US in 2017, was blasted by safety experts for allowing kids to join group chats with “friends of friends” - a.k.a. strangers - without parent approval.
Given the company’s history of mishandling user data, some experts have warned that Messenger Kids may be a way for Facebook to harvest children’s data to sell to the highest bidder. Others have raised red flags about exposing kids to yet more advertising.
Finally, there’s the issue of screen-time. Do children of this age truly need another reason to stay online?
But many respected experts say they're satisfied that Facebook has finally gotten it right with Messenger Kids - including Family Zone cyber expert Yasmin London, executive director of national digital safety education provider ySafe.
“The key factor,” notes London, a former police officer, “is that it is controlled by parents. They’re really in the driver’s seat with controlling what kids can and can’t do.”
First of all, the only way for children to sign up is via a parent’s Facebook account. Doing so generates a Parent’s Dashboard that shows images and videos being shared, and allows mums and dads to add or remove contacts.
The key factor, says cyber expert Yasmin London, is that it's controlled by parents
Parents receive an alert whenever new contacts are added. They can also view a detailed 30-day activity report to see exactly whom their child has chatted with and what other content has been shared.
What’s more, when setting up the app, children are asked to commit to a pledge stating they will be kind, respectful and careful in their use of the app. While no guarantee of safety, the pledge is designed to invite conversation with kids about appropriate online behaviour - a key recommendation from online safety advocates.
In more practical terms, the app features a “sleep mode” - again, subject to parental control - which means vigilant adults can control usage.
But what about privacy?
As for concerns about data-mining and targeting kids for advertising, Facebook has categorically denied that the app will allow ads. It has also maintained that it will not harvest user data for its own or for third parties.
Family Zone cyber expert Yasmin London of ySafe
“I can say, hand on my heart, I’ve been in meetings (with Facebook) and they are really trying to make things safer,” says London.
Yet parental involvement remains “the gold standard for cyber safety," she insists.
“We’re seeing a bit of a trend now with lots of social media platforms with lots of bonding between parents and kids. It’s an opportunity for kids to teach their parents the benefits of social media – and have some fun.”
How much is too much?
That said, London and other experts warn that parents need to be strict about screen-time limits, even under lockdown conditions.
“A lot of research suggests up to an hour a day for a child aged 10 and over – which is the age group this app is aimed at – can be seen to be beneficial for that child, especially in times of isolation.
“Anything goes over that hour, edging towards two hours, has been shown to have negative effects for kids.”
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