On Monday morning, Facebook unveiled Messenger Kids, a new standalone messaging app on iOS in the US that’s meant for kids as young as 6 years old.
The app’s design is elegant and its privacy features appear thoughtful — kids can only chat with contacts approved by parents — but Facebook has repeatedly proven itself incapable of anticipating the worst of human nature. The company’s move to attract children as users is likely to generate a good deal of scrutiny.
As Messenger Kids debuts, more than a few parents might ask themselves whether they really want their first-graders to use a product created by a company whose core experience has already been gamed by trolls, liars, and a Russian state-sponsored operation meant to sow chaos in US politics and society. It’s also fair to ask whether Messenger Kids is simply another Facebook product intended to grow its user base, and if kids so young (six!) should really be using messaging apps at all.
At a small press briefing in San Francisco last week, Facebook did its best to provide answers to these questions. A product manager detailed the app’s safety precautions: Parents entirely control account creation and contact management in Messenger Kids, he said. And parents can only add contacts for their kids if they themselves are friends with those contacts’ parents on Facebook. Parents manage their kid’s app inside their own Facebook apps. Messenger Kids also has specialized reporting that allows kids to report friends who are being mean, and it notifies parents when these reports are filed. There are also human moderators and filtering software that scan for inappropriate content, such as nude images, and will zap said content right out of the app the moment they detect it. It’s worth noting, however, that Facebook’s moderation efforts have had mixed results.
“It’s such a big, unmet need, and no one has actually done a really good job with apps like this,” Messenger head David Marcus told BuzzFeed News in an interview following the briefing.
Though Facebook has pitched growth initiatives as benevolent programs in the past, Marcus took issue with the notion that Messenger Kids could be an attempt to hook Facebook users at an early age. “The goal is not to get kids onto Facebook,” he said. “There’s really no other reason for us to do this than to actually enable kids to communicate with their parents and vice versa, and kids to communicate with their friends within a safe zone that’s controlled by the parents.”
Though it is undeniable that Facebook will benefit from getting young people accustomed to using its products — providing a toehold with a demographic it’s had persistent troubles with — Marcus said there is no “migration plan” to bring children using Messenger Kids onto the core Messenger product.
Messenger Kids will also take into account parents’ desires to limit their kids’ app usage. The team plans to eventually install parental controls that can limit the amount of time kids can spend using it, Marcus said, something that seems to make sense in an era where kids have become so dependent on devices that some parents are punishing them by making them watch TV instead of using their iPads.
At first glance, Messenger Kids appears to give parents and kids what they'd want. Its privacy settings seem careful. It doesn’t appear to be part of a blatant scheme for Facebook to add more users. It doesn’t have ads. Its experience is fun, with creative just-for-kids face filters, like a shark head, and augmented-reality visuals that can turn a room into an aquarium with dolphins. And its creators seem to understand parents’ worries about their children’s screentime.
But concerns over Messenger Kids will likely linger. With more than 2 billion people using its core product and more than 1.3 billion using Messenger, Facebook is so big, and has publicly stumbled so hard, it’s doubtful that even its most altruistic effort would be met without skepticism. Still, Marcus seemed happy to be talking about a new product as opposed to a crisis. “It’s nice,” he said. “Of course it’s nice to talk about product and fixing real problems for people.”