Looking to stir up a heated controversy? Put the words “children” and “technology” in the same sentence. Just ask Facebook. Last Monday, the social media behemoth launched its first application, Messenger Kids, that was made just for kids between the ages of six and 12 – and was met with an array of criticism, accolades and everything in between.
Of course, any parent understands the mixed feelings that we feel when someone creates technology aimed at children. We might feel anger that our kids are getting exploited, sad that this youngest generation is getting hooked on screens so early or even excitement that technology can provide our young ones with better tools and more access to knowledge than we ever had. How do you reconcile these confusing feelings, and how do you decide – as the parent – what to allow your children to participate in?
Here’s my take on this new app, in the hopes that it helps you wade through this tricky topic.
Thoughtful Development or Tech Gateway?
Businesses are in business to make money. Period. So whenever a new product is unveiled, savvy consumers need to recognize that there’s almost always a revenue-producing reason behind it. When Facebook decided to target a new age group of children with its Messenger Kids app, we all have to ask why. And the answer is pretty apparent: they want to get children exposed to, familiar with and reliant upon Facebook as early as possible so they will hopefully become lifelong users. And while there’s nothing inherently wrong with businesses making decisions to turn a profit, there still can be a shaky ethical line when our kids are involved.
First, let’s look at the app’s functionality. It’s said to function as a messaging platform and also allow users to apply filters to their photos (a la Snapchat) and send photos and videos along with text messages. Facebook said it underwent 18 months of development and careful conversations with parent groups, advocates and child-development experts in order to make sure the technology limits risks and maximizes benefits. That all sounds great. But when push comes to shove, the goal with this app was to introduce kids very early to Facebook and keep them as customers indefinitely. So yes, the development of the app seems to have been thoughtful. But it also was a business decision, not a favor the company was doing for you or your children. Keep that in mind.
Proper Precautions… For Now
Considering all the backlash that YouTube Kids has faced, Facebook launched the Messenger Kids app cautiously. The company was quick to explain how it has protected children using the app from danger – and it certainly has put many safeguards in place to limit vulnerability. For one, the app complies with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule, and it doesn’t allow children to be searched for by name (rather, parents have to find and approve new contacts).
Furthermore, Facebook isn’t being overt about its goal to acquire a new generation of users, as it doesn’t automatically create a ‘regular’ Facebook account for users of Messenger Kids once they turn 13 (and are eligible to join Facebook). The company has also gone to great lengths to explain that reports of abuse within the platform are sent to parents, and are reviewed – and followed up on – by humans.
This is all good. These are positive steps for a technology company to take to protect our kids from the dangers out there. But just as technology and technological safety measures evolve, so do the practices of child predators. And the fact remains that allowing your child at an extremely young age to engage in a messaging platform like this still opens them up to more risk than they would be exposed to if they stayed away from this type of tech until they were older (and more aware of dangers). As one writer puts it, the way in which Facebook was manipulated during the 2016 presidential election “shed(s) light on the shortcomings of algorithms and the vulnerability of tech platforms to be gamed by bad actors.”
In other words, no matter how protective Facebook thinks it’s been, putting a whole generation of young children on an app like this one puts them in a vulnerable position. After all, sharing or asking for photos, videos and texts (all of which are able to be sent and received through Messenger Kids) are the usual tactics that child predators take with young kids. All it would take is one predatory contact to be added by a parent accidentally, and a child’s innocence (or even safety) could be compromised. Algorithms aren’t fail-proof.
The Role of the Parent
Even though it might seem like I’m saying otherwise, it’s not all gloom and doom when it comes to this app or other tech geared toward children. We can’t avoid the fact that technology has permeated our society and kids are going to need to be able to use it – and know how to do so safely – in order to be part of the modern culture. If you, as a parent, feel that the benefits of allowing your child to use a platform like this outweigh the risks, then it’s your prerogative to teach them how to use it. It’s also your job to make sure your kids feel secure in coming to you with anything they see or experience that scares them or makes them uncomfortable. An open dialogue between parents and children is paramount.
I recommend protecting your kids as much as you can, and you can even use tech for this (through companies like Clean Router, among others). So shield them when you can, and be sure you’ve taught them to think on their own and be aware of dangers so they can make smart decisions when you’re not right there. If you’re not sure where to start the conversation, check out Educate Empower Kids, which is a great resource that gives you tips on talking to your kids about the dangers of the Internet and protecting them from other risks as well.
Tech is always going to be there, so the best we can do is be actively engaged in what our children are doing online, talk with them openly and empower them to be savvy technology users as they grow. And that’s the bottom line when it comes to this app or any other child-centric technology that comes along in the future.