Facebook's Messenger Kids deepens debate over child social media use

Facebook now has a messaging app for kids - its first product aimed at young children, putting the social network at the heart of the ongoing debate about how and when children should start their online lives.

The app, called Messenger Kids, allows users under the age of 13 to send texts, videos and photos; they can draw on the pictures they send and add stickers. The app gives the company access to a new market whose age prohibits them from using the firm's main social network. Unlike with its full social network, the data collection will be limited, Facebook said, and the children will need their parents' permission to use it.

Messenger Kids was designed after consultation with hundreds of parents and several children's advocates, such as the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the social network said. The company took many cues from these conversations, said Antigone Davis, Facebook's head of global safety. Parental permission is required to sign up for the app, she said. If two children want to be friends with each other, each will have to get parental approval for contact. "It's just like setting up a play date," Davis said.

Facebook's move is the latest from a tech behemoth that show how companies are grappling with the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act. The law requires companies targeting children under 13 to take extra steps to safeguard privacy and security - particularly around advertising, as children may not understand what is and is not an ad. For years, major tech firms such as Facebook complied with COPPA by not allowing those under 13 to have accounts. But with technology moving deeper into the home and many firms looking for more growth, children have become a more attractive market.

"It's a very lucrative market; companies want to capture these people, these children, so they can keep them throughout their lives," said Kathryn Montgomery, a communications professor at American University and one of the main advocates who helped get COPPA passed.

Several major tech firms have recently released products that allow younger children to use their services within the limits of the kids' privacy law - and reach more of the country's 48.8 million children under the age of 13 in the process. Google in March introduced "Family Link," which allowed parents to set up kid-friendly Google Accounts. Amazon has also added kid-focused "skills" to its Echo smart speakers, which require a parent's permission to activate.

(Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos is the owner of The Washington Post.)

Davis said that Facebook spoke with the Federal Trade Commission to ensure that the app is compliant with COPPA. The FTC did not respond to a request for comment.

Analysts say that messaging apps give Facebook a chance to tap into a younger generation that they have been losing; earlier this year, the company bought tbh - a popular teen messaging app. When Facebook asked parents about launching a kids' app, many told the company that they did not want a full social network, but had more interest in a communications tool, the company said.

Facebook said that Messenger Kids will have no ads. It will also not use data from Messenger Kids for Facebook ads. (Parents shouldn't, for example, see an ad for a toy on Facebook because their child talked about it on Messenger Kids.) The firm said no data from Messenger Kids will be fed to the main social network, nor will their information automatically port to other Facebook products when they turn 13, the company said.

The new app doesn't create an account for kids; parents are asked to provide only their child's name. Parents have to use their Facebook email address and password to activate their child's account, but that does not log a parent into their child's device. But, per the app's privacy policy, Facebook also collects information on the content of messages. It also reserves the right to share information with other firms as necessary - such as customer service providers or companies that can help it analyze how the app is being used.

Those companies, in turn, must have their own privacy policies to protect children, the app's privacy policy said.

Davis said that, if a parent decides to delete their child's account, Facebook will also delete any data from its own servers.

Facebook's focus on younger children raised some alarm bells, however. "We appreciate that for now, the product is ad-free and appears designed to put parents in control. But why should parents simply trust that Facebook is acting in the best interest of kids?" said Jim Steyer, executive director of Common Sense Media, in a statement. A recent Family Online Safety Institute study found that parents are more skeptical of the benefits of social media for their children then they are of smartphones or even wearable devices.

Facebook has been careful to comply with the law, Montgomery said. But, she also warned, many products that start as noncommercial can change over time.

"New aspects of the product will emerge," she said, in her role as a senior consultant for the Center for Digital Democracy. "I think we're at an interesting moment, and there are a lot of moves into that marketplace."

The app launches on Apple's App Store first. Facebook plans to release Android and Amazon versions next year. The company has no plans to release a similar kids-only platform for its other main social network, Instagram.

Facebook's approach may encourage companies to create safer, more limited and legally compliant services for kids, said Larry Magid, chief executive of the nonprofit, one of many organizations Facebook briefed on the product ahead of its launch. (The group receives funding from Facebook as well as Google, Kik and other companies that have messaging products.)

"The reality is that kids are going to go use apps if they're under 13," he said. "The question becomes do we simply ban them and fight a losing fight?"

This photo provided by Facebook demonstrates parental controls on its new Messenger Kids. (Courtesy of Facebook via AP)
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