Photo by h heyerlein on Unsplash

Beware of Facebook Messenger for Kids

This week I was scrolling through Facebook on my mobile device, I came across the following ad for their new Messenger Kids app.

In the ad, it shared the names and profile photos of some of my friends that have children, and indicated that they use and like this new tool. I blurred out their photos & names for this post.

I will reach out to them to see if they are using Messenger Kids and approve of Facebook using their likeness to sell their product. In the past, Facebook has been guilty of using your photos in ads for some time.

Messenger for Kids

Messaging apps for kids seems like a no-brainer. At the time I’m writing this post, my son is 8 years old. We set up an account for him using Google Hangouts. We use this to allow him to text and chat with family from his device. We set up the account as a family account that is linked to my account. We control who he can chat with…and can delete the account at any point.

There is value to us (his parents) as we’re building the literacies needed to communicate using these tools. We’re also enjoying the serendipitous moments when he sends us a well-timed animated GIF, or checks in while we’re apart.

Terms of use usually bans these sorts of tools and products for children under the age of 13. My Wife and I are making the decision to test this out and use it as a teaching moment. We also used dummy information to create the account…not sharing his real name, birthday, or other identifiable info.

Facebook Messenger for Kids

Facebook’s new app is a modified version of their chat app, Messenger. Facebook Messenger Kids is an attempt to hook kids on Facebook at an early age. Teens and tweens are getting hooked on Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, Kik, & TikTok. Many times they sign up for these apps and platforms without their parent’s permission or knowledge.

Facebook is trying to use parents on their platform as a way to bring future users into the social network. Meant chiefly for texting and video-chatting with parent-approved friends & family, it includes fun features like digital stickers & animated masks. The social network is using ads, user names & photos, and slick tools to give the veneer that they’re a safe space for children.

Do you trust Facebook to take care of your kids?

The ultimate question is whether or not you trust Facebook to create a safe space for children. The answer to this question is complicated as adults should be questioning the role of social media…Facebook most of all…in our lives. A growing number of people, including early Facebook investors like Sean Parker, as well as former executives, have raised questions about the social network’s motives.

In previous experiments, it proved it can alter people’s moods or their likelihood of voting by tweaking your news feeds. During the most recent US presidential election campaign, Facebook admitted Russian-backed political content reached 126 million American users, showing how vulnerable the platform is to abuse.

Facebook has a history of playing it “fast and loose” with user data and privacy. What this means is that Facebook often creates the rules, as identified in their terms of use, and then changes them over time. These changes are often never highlighted, and hidden in the terms of service that users quickly click through. In fact, Facebook has already changed their rules dictating that children’s parents don’t need to be friends with one another, on order to connect.

Connecting with kids

As detailed earlier, I want to provide my children with opportunities to start using these digital texts and tools in their lives. I’m also cautious about the ultimate impact of the specific tools and places we play with.

In my own personal life, I’m re-examining the role of social networks, and most specifically Facebook. I have concerns about their use of my data and privacy. I also have questions about depression and digital, social connections.

In terms of Facebook Messenger Kids, I think our family will take a pass on this opportunity. Given my concerns, I don’t think it is wise to indoctrinate my children into that culture. I want to give them the freedom to make that decision when they’re ready.

I want them to learn while using these texts and tools. I’m not sure that I want Facebook to be the teacher.

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About the author

Ian O'Byrne

Dr. W. Ian O’Byrne is a educator, researcher, & speaker. His work centers on teaching, learning, and technology. He investigates the literacy practices of individuals as they read, write, and communicate in online & hybrid spaces.

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