Keeping kids connected with friends and family over long distances can be tough. One app that can help keep kids in touch with loved ones is Messenger Kids on Facebook, but, like all technology, there are pros and cons each parent will need to weigh to decide if the app is appropriate for their kids.
With Messenger Kids, kids can video chat and send messages, emojis, and stickers to stay in touch. Kids can also connect with the friends that they're used to seeing at school every day. If you decide to let your kids use the app, experts recommend paying close attention to who your child interacts with and what they talk about.
Titania Jordan, Chief Parenting Officer at Bark, an award-winning monitoring service that helps parents keep kids safe online, tells Romper that although messaging apps can be fun for kids, parents should be paying attention, too.
"Not all apps require a minimum age, so parents should look into each app their kids are using," Jordan says. She also recommends making sure the apps your kids use are appropriate, and that you're educated in data tracking, who your kids interact with, and in-app marketing tactics "to avoid unwanted purchases made by cyber-savvy kids."
To use Messenger Kids, parents must connect the app to their personal Facebook account (kids do not need a Facebook account to use the app, as users must be at least 13 years old). Messenger Kids will generate a private code kids can share with their friends if they want to connect with each other in the app, but parents must approve these contacts before they can be added to the contact list. Another important safety feature of the app ensures that kids cannot delete messages, so parents can actively monitor their kids' complete conversations.
Although Messenger Kids allows parents to monitor their child's conversations, Jordan says an extra layer of protection can be helpful in terms of screen time management. "Having a monitoring service like Bark installed on kids’ devices can give parents the extra confidence they need (especially right now) by doing a lot of the work for them and only alerting them to issues of concern," she tells Romper.
Parenting coach and author of The Emotionally Healthy Child, Maureen Healy, PhD. tells Romper that parents should also pay attention to how their kids feel and act after their interactions within the app. "Stay engaged, informed, and observant so you can emotionally help and coach your child," she says.
"Only approve children you have met in person or that your child promises is a positive influence," Healy tells Romper. "You can always monitor conversations and review them. Anything going on that promotes bullying, cursing, or fear-inducing anxiety needs to stop, but your child needs to foster healthy friendships."
Although the Messenger Kids app is intended for kids ages 6 to 12, media experts at Common Sense Media have rated the app best for ages 13 and up, and Parent reviews on Common Sense Media rated the app appropriate for kids ages 9 and older. The media group cites Facebook's data collection as the main issue within the app for parents to consider. Basically, the data collected when your kids use the app can be used to create targeted ads and features later on if they sign up for Facebook or Instagram. The site's review expressed concern that this could lead to increased social media use and impact a child's health and well-being.
"We built Messenger Kids after talking to thousands of parents and parenting experts to give kids and parents an age-appropriate, parentally-supervised platform for messaging friends and family," a Facebook representative tells Romper. "We regularly consult with child development experts, parents, and safety experts on new features, and talked to those key stakeholders about these updates while we built them."
Another concern about Messenger Kids is a known hiccup within the app in July 2019 that allowed kids to add secondary friends, or friends of friends, to a group chat setting without their parents' approval of those friends. Facebook addressed the glitch with parents in a message and fixed the privacy flaw within the app, The Verge reported.
"We felt it was important to make sure parents knew what happened so they could talk to their children about online safety," a Facebook representative confirmed to Romper. "Following the technical issue, we looked at ways to strengthen parent controls and visibility and introduced new features in the Parent Dashboard in February."
Apps like Messenger Kids can open your child up to an entirely new world of online communication, and parents should be direct with their kids about their expectations and boundaries. "I also believe every child needs guidance as to what's helpful and not helpful to engage with," Healy tells Romper.
Parents can set time limits on the app by using the app's sleep mode, which turns access off at a set time each day. Kids also need to be able to have honest conversations about online bullying and safety. Healy suggests making sure kids know that they should only connect with those online they have met in real life, to never share personal information with anyone online, and that they can talk to their parents about any concerns.
Healy recommends parents tell their children, "Sometimes there are people who don't have the best of intentions and we can't trust them." She says this is similar to the "stranger danger" conversation. "You don't get in the car with anyone you don't know or take candy from them. The same rules apply online."
Many apps allow messaging and video chat, but not all are safe for kids. Messenger Kids is not the perfect solution. But, because of the safeguards that Facebook has built into the Messenger Kids app, parents can feel a little more confident in making the decision to download the app or not.
Titania Jordan, Chief Parenting Officer at Bark
Maureen Healy, Ph.D, child psychologist, author of The Emotionally Healthy Child, and parenting coach at Growinghappykids.com