In December, Facebook introduced the world to Messenger Kids, a version of its messaging app aimed at children under age 13. The app is meant to allow children 6 to 12 years old to chat with friends — but it requires plenty of supervision from parents, with parental approval needed in order to authorize accounts and connect with other users. However, despite the higher level of parental control, many parents may still be wondering: is Facebook's new messenger app safe for kids? Or should kids be spending those formative years off of social media entirely?
In an open letter to Facebook published on Tuesday, one group of children's advocates — including psychiatrists, educators, pediatricians, and parents — argued that Messenger Kids would do more harm than good. The effort was led by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, a Boston-based group that argued in its letter to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg that it was "particularly irresponsible to encourage children as young as preschoolers to start using a Facebook product."
The letter cited research that has linked social media use to higher rates of depression, more unhappiness, and lower levels of life satisfaction in teens. It also brought up concerns about young girls' body image and teens' disrupted sleeping habits.
The letter urged Facebook to consider key developmental skills that young kids might miss out on if they took more of their relationships online, writing:
Encouraging kids to move their friendships online will interfere with and displace the face-to-face interactions and play that are crucial for building healthy developmental skills, including the ability to read human emotion, delay gratification, and engage with the physical world.
In a statement to Romper, Facebook said:
Messenger Kids is a messaging app that helps parents and children to chat in a safer way, with parents always in control of their child’s contacts and who they can message. ... We worked to create Messenger Kids with an advisory committee of parenting and developmental experts, as well as with families themselves and in partnership with National PTA. We continue to be focused on making Messenger Kids be the best experience it can be for families. We have been very clear that there is no advertising in Messenger Kids.
Facebook has also argued that children are going to use social media anyway, citing data that 60 percent of surveyed parents said their children (under age 13) were already using social media or messaging apps. Messenger Kids, the social media giant believes, helps introduce at least a measure of safety to children's social media use, by helping parents control who their children can talk to and keeping ads off kids' screens.
The experts reaching out to Facebook, however, aren't on board with the company's safety reasoning. Instead, they claim, Facebook is moving in on a younger target market with the view of converting them into unrestricted Facebook users once they turn 13.
"Children are not ready to use social media on their own," Jenny Radesky, MD, a developmental behavior pediatrician, said in a press release issued by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. She continued:
Developmentally, it’s hard for 6- to 12- year- olds to grasp concepts like privacy and who is using their data. They’re just starting to build awareness about their identity, their role in relationships, and morality. Combine that immaturity with the problematic interactions that often happen on social media, and it could be really messy.
Like any other decision related to internet use or screen time, it seems like the decision of whether or not to allow children on Messenger Kids will come down to individual parents. But the experts' recent open letter to Facebook at least helps introduce another side to the story, and might serve as an additional resource to help parents decide what they feel comfortable with their kids doing online.