What Parents Need To Know About The New Facebook Messenger App For Kids

by Melissa L. Fenton
NurPhoto / Getty Images

Just in case your kids aren’t staring into a tablet, laptop, or smartphone screen enough, last month Facebook released its now “kid exclusive” messenger app. Targeted specifically for the 13 and under crowd, Facebook wants a piece of the Snapchat and heavily-monetized YouTube pie, so they plan on seducing their way to it by innocently allowing your kids to use a “kid-friendly” version of Facebook Messenger called Messenger Kids.

But before you give your kids carte blanche to use the app there are a few things you need to know.

First, because of COPPA (Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act), most of the tech giants have shied away from developing any kind of app that requires collecting personal information from a minor and, by law, they cannot do so without parental permission. Messenger Kids skirts around this legal requirement by first getting parental approval and permissions for the app, and having it installed and used within the context of a parent account.

So how exactly does Messenger Kids work?

Messenger Kids is a separate standalone app available in the app store that will work on tablets, smartphones and, most recently, the Kindle Fire. It is controlled via a parent’s Facebook account, and according to Facebook, “It makes it easier for kids to safely video chat and message with family and friends when they can’t be together in person.”

Once set up, kids can add friends and contacts (only with parental approval), and can then video chat, send photos, or just text chat back and forth. Included in the app and similar to Snapchat’s wide array of snazzy filters, Messenger Kids will have a library of “kid-appropriate and specially chosen GIFs, frames, stickers, masks and drawing tools lets them decorate content and express their personalities.”

What information will Facebook need about my child?

Once in the app, parents will be asked to create a profile for their child using their full, real name. (This alone might be enough to make some parents — including me — pause.) Parents will also be able to create more than one profile if they have more than once child using the app. These profiles will help connect kids to friends, family members, and other contacts, but each friend request they receive will need to be approved by an adult in the adult/parent portal of the app.

What about ads?

There are no advertisements or in-app purchases on Messenger Kids, and Loren Cheng, product director for Messenger Kids, said Facebook would “not use for marketing purposes the details it collected from children.” But that could change, as well as the fact that it can still target ads to the adults based on their child’s interactions. (Reason to pause number two.)

What about data collection and mining?

This is where things get dicey. Since Messenger Kids falls under the Facebook umbrella, it most certainly is collecting and storing a vast array of data about you and your children, and can and will provide that data to other Facebook apps and services. Reading the fine print in the Messenger Kids privacy policy, you’ll see the app will be collecting your child’s full name, as well as texts, audio and videos your child sends, and also information about whom the child interacts with on the service, what features they use, and how long the children use them. Yep. All of that data will forever be stored and inevitably mined somewhere for future use and reference. (Reason to pause number three.)

For example, Facebook will now have the names and profiles of millions of children under the age of 13, which means when they do turn 13, with one click, Facebook will be able to provide those kids their own Facebook account — complete with their friends and contacts already added. Sounds convenient, right? But what if a parent removes their child’s messenger account? Doesn’t it all go away? Nope. The content your child received and shared “may still be visible” to others.

Privacy Policy and Messenger Kids

Last year, Facebook faced some hefty fines in Europe for reneging on privacy policy, and altering privacy terms and conditions. For this reason, Messenger Kids is cause for concern to many who advocate for children’s online safety. James Steyer, the chief executive of Common Sense Media, a children’s media ratings and advocacy group, has suggested that Facebook “make a public and permanent commitment to keeping Messenger Kids free of advertising and to not using the app to prime children for grown-up accounts later.” In other words, say what you mean and mean what you say, and avoid a potential calamity of privacy issues concerning our children, all in the name of marketing and ad revenue.

In the initial rollout of Messenger Kids, Facebook was quick to inform parents that only after extensive research and conversations with child developments experts, parents, teachers, and even name-dropping the National PTA, were they able to develop the app, ensuring us of both its safety and relevance to the future of tech savvy kids.

Is this effort to keep our kids safe online by developing a kids only portion of Facebook, only a pipeline to rein in millions of future Facebook account holders? We shall see. In the meantime, I think I will steer clear of software that has the ability to map out (and save forever) my kid’s entire childhood via their social interactions.

But that’s just me.