Facebook urged to shut down chat platform made for kids

31 January, 2018, 10:47 | Author: Sheri Evans
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Facebook app
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EPA

Several parents and advocates are pleading with Facebook to reconsider its Messenger Kids app, which began a preview release in December 2017, because of the potential negative health effects on children. Even if Facebook did say that it won't profile children and won't serve any ads inside Messenger Kids, the app is still regarded by some as a gateway drug for future Facebook and Messenger experiences the children may be exposed to once they become teenagers and upgrade their Facebook apps. The group argues that it is "very likely this new app will undermine children's healthy development", basing that argument on "a growing body of research" into the the excessive use of social media and gadgets by young kids.

Despite its attempts to quell parents' and health professionals' concerns about kids online, Facebook continues to face heavy backlash to its Messenger Kids network. However, an advocacy group is arguing that none of those features matter because, they say, Messenger Kids is inherently unsafe to kids.

"After talking to thousands of parents, associations like National PTA, and parenting experts in the USA, we found that there's a need for a messaging app that lets kids connect with people they love but also has the level of control parents want", Facebook Product Management Director, Loren Cheng, at the time.

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But the pediatric and mental child health experts don't think the protections do enough. "Messenger Kids will exacerbate this problem, as the anticipation of friends' responses will be a powerful incentive for children to check - and stay on - a phone or tablet", the group says. Messenger Kids is a chatting app, not an app via which to post Facebook statuses and read others' statuses.

"Younger children are simply not ready to have social media accounts", the coalition says in the scathing letter.

The 11- and 12-year-olds who now use Snapchat, Instagram, or Facebook are unlikely to switch to an app that is clearly designed for younger children.

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The letter is signed by a range of child welfare groups, chief among them the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.

In addition to video chat, kids can send photos, videos or text messages to their parent-approved friends and adult relatives, who will receive the messages via their regular Messenger app. Companies like Facebook, with more than 2 billion users every month, and Google's YouTube Kids app have been criticized for pitching products as safe for children, but then can't keep up when a flood of content lets inappropriate items sneak through.

When Facebook launched Messenger Kids in December, the company pitched it as a way to safeguard pre-teens who may be using unauthorized social media accounts.

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Saying "Messenger Kids is not responding to a need - it is creating one". Advocates poked holes in Facebook's stated motivation for launching the app, and pointed out features that were seemed to be designed for Facebook's benefit. The app offers virtual masks, emoji, and sound effects plus a library of "kid-appropriate" GIFs, frames, stickers, and drawing tools. It doesn't even require kids to use their real name for the service, unlike Facebook proper. "We ask that you do not use Facebook's enormous reach and influence to make it even harder", the letter said.

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