Facebook has always required users to be aged 13 or older before signing up for an account, placing services like Messenger and Instagram out of reach for most middle school children. Laws regarding data collection and advertising to children means that Facebook cannot easily make money from youngsters – so it has always been easier to simply block access.
Despite having more than 2 billion users worldwide, Facebook has struggled to get more people to sign up. More concerning still, for (Facebook management anyway) has been the fact that young people are deserting the platform for alternatives like Instagram and Snapchat. Something had to be done to help bring younger users back into the ecosystem.
Facebook Messenger Kids makes an appearance
In the last few weeks we have seen the roll-out of Facebook Messenger Kids, the first product ever aimed at “under age” children. Facebook claims the app is to help families and family friends stay connected, providing a safe space for group chats and video calls. (It’s also a very useful way to bring people into the Facebook platform younger).
The app is very much like the standard Facebook Messenger platform, and under-13s will now be able to chat with other users – with a few restrictions.
Facebook Messenger Kids does not require a full Facebook account for instance. You don’t even need to supply a phone number. Instead a parent downloads the special kids’ messenger app onto their child’s tablet/smartphone and logs in with their Facebook account to create a profile for the child.
Once set-up, parents will see a new bookmark in their own Facebook account that shows contacts associated with Facebook Messenger for Kids.
A reduced risk of grooming
Importantly Facebook Messenger Kids is a “closed” network, so random strangers cannot contact them – they do not appear in Facebook searches for instance. Instead, every new contact must ask permission to connect – and only parents can approve the request. Each request will appear on the parent’s Facebook account, so they can immediately block strangers or anyone who looks suspicious.
It is impossible for anyone you don’t know to message – or even find – your kids on Facebook. The chat network also uses intelligent content filtering to identify (and block) inappropriate content, adding a further layer of protection for your kids.
Parents still need to be alert
Although parents must approve every contact request, there is a very real risk that strangers and criminals may create fake profiles with the specific intention of gaining access to your kids. You should check each and every connection request very carefully to ensure that no imposters sneak through. You should also talk with your children as they use Facebook Messenger Kids to ensure they know what to do if someone says something inappropriate, or which makes them feel uncomfortable.
The other consideration is how Facebook use your personal data. It is claimed that Facebook Messenger Kids does not collect information from your chat sessions for profiling purposes. They may use other data however, particularly about your contact list, to begin building a profile for use in advertising campaigns. That way when your kids do reach 13 and upgrade to a full Facebook account, the network can start targeting ads more effectively from day one.
Ultimately, parents need to decide whether they want the hassle of checking every contact request – and whether they really want to bring their younger children into the Facebook ecosystem. Although Facebook Messenger Kids is undoubtedly safer than other unfiltered messaging apps like Kik and Snapchat, parents may feel that plain old SMS text messaging and iMessage are just as good.
Facebook Messenger for Kids is available for download from the Apple App Store now.