Future Tense

How Facebook Is Trying to Save Messenger Kids

A little girl sticks her tongue out and smiles as she looks at a smartphone.
Pan Xiaozhen/Unsplash

When Facebook launched Messenger Kids in December 2017, it struggled to endear the new app to the public. The day after its release, Jeremy Hunt, then the U.K.’s health secretary, slammed Messenger Kids for actively targeting children ages 6 to 12. A month later, more than 100 child development researchers, organizations, and parents penned an open letter calling for Mark Zuckerberg to shut it down. While Facebook stressed that it had worked with parenting experts to develop the app, it was soon reported that Facebook funded most of them. Then, Facebook admitted last August that a design flaw allowed children to participate in group chats with unapproved strangers.

These scrapes left Facebook in a tough place, especially as it’s worked to present itself as a company on top of online safety post-Cambridge Analytica scandal. On Tuesday, Facebook seemed to respond to the concerns by announcing major changes to Messenger Kids that give parents more control over their children’s activities on the app.

As the first major messaging app aimed at children, Messenger Kids occupies a polarizing niche in the market. In the past, few internet companies allowed children to sign up for their services because of legal issues associated with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998, or COPPA. With Messenger Kids, Facebook sidestepped this problem by having parents create accounts for their kids. Parents then monitor their kids’ activities through the Parent Dashboard of the main Facebook app.

Before the update released Tuesday, parents preapproved all contacts, had the ability to block contacts, and were notified if their children blocked any contacts. The update gives parents even more opportunities to manage their children’s experience. Now, parents can view their child’s recent contacts, images, and videos. They can log their child out of the app remotely and download a copy of their child’s information, including all the messages they’ve sent and received. (The child is notified of the latter.) The update also includes a new privacy policy and a short, age-appropriate explanation of online privacy that pops up on Messenger Kids.

Priya Kumar, a researcher who studies the intersection of digital technology and parenting, thinks these changes are positive. They simply make the app safer for kids. Still, she said, “it’s really important to emphasize though that controls are not a panacea. It’s not that having more parental controls is going to solve any of the problems that arise from children and technology use.”

Those problems are twofold: privacy on the one hand, child development on the other. As public awareness around digital privacy grows, more people are concerned about data protection, especially for minors. While Facebook has emphasized that it doesn’t use children’s data for advertising, it does share this information with third parties for the purpose of operating the service. Facebook says these service providers must adhere to strict confidentiality obligations, but we still don’t know exactly who those third parties are or how they’re regulated. As Kumar pointed out, Facebook could be more transparent here.

Most people, though, are more concerned about the impact of screen time on a child’s development. Facebook has tried to present Messenger Kids as an app that’s beneficial to parents and gives children the opportunity to learn digital literacy skills: something along the lines of, “Well, if they’re gonna do it anyway …” (An adult member of Facebook’s kids advisory board has actually compared the desire to shut down Messenger Kids to abstinence-only education.) But the opposing argument is that apps like Facebook Kids condition children as young as 6 years old to live on social media—and that parents do have considerable control over their children’s smartphone and tablet use. It’s not uncommon for parents to want to keep their kids locked away from these devices, or to avow the blessings of the screenless life.

While Kumar understands these fears about screen time, she emphasized that there are no easy answers when it comes to children and technology use, especially since we live in a world where it’s hard to escape digital technologies. “Like a lot of aspects of parenting, these are choices that parents have to make for themselves and for their children,” she said. “For me, it comes back to parents asking themselves, ‘What are your values? What kind of relationship do you have with technology? And what kind of relationship do you want your children to have with technology?’ And understanding that those answers can even be different if you have multiple children.”

But what about the demands on parents? The Messenger Kids parental control features might place an even greater burden on overworked parents to keep track of their kids’ behavior at all times, further entrenching the relationship between surveillance and parenting. It’s not hard to imagine a parent’s eyes glued to the screen, scrolling through their child’s messages one by one late into the night.

This is why Kumar stresses the importance of dialogue—and trust—over closely monitoring your kids, especially as they grow older. “Respecting children’s privacy is really important, and I think it’s easy to gloss over that, especially when you bring up things like safety and risk,” she said. Fundamentally, since we’re dealing with many of the same questions around privacy and boundaries parents have long grappled with, “there’s no right answer,” Kumar said. “I hope that that can be a little freeing for parents.”

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.