Child development experts and advocates are urging Facebook to pull the plug on its messaging app aimed at children under 13.
A group letter sent to Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg argues that younger children are not ready to have social media accounts, navigate the complexities of online relationships or protect their privacy.
Facebook launched the free Messenger Kids app in December, pitching it as a way for children to chat with family members and friends approved by parents. It does not give kids separate Facebook or Messenger accounts. Rather, the app works as an extension of a parent’s account, and parents get controls such as the ability to decide who their kids can chat with.
The social media giant has said it fills “a need for a messaging app that lets kids connect with people they love but also has the level of control parents want”. But critics see the move as a way for Facebook to lure in a younger audience before they can move on to a rival service such as Snapchat.
Now a group of 100 experts, advocates and parenting organisations is contesting Facebook’s claims of filling a need.
Led by the Boston-based Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, the group includes psychiatrists, paediatricians, educators and the children’s music singer Raffi Cavoukian.
“Messenger Kids is not responding to a need, it is creating one,” the letter states.
“It appeals primarily to children who otherwise would not have their own social media accounts.”
Another passage criticised Facebook for “targeting younger children with a new product”.
In a statement, Facebook said the app “helps parents and children to chat in a safer way”, and emphasised that parents were “always in control” of their children’s activity.
The social media giant added that it consulted with parenting experts and families, and said “there is no advertising in Messenger Kids”.
Some companies have offered parental controls as a way of curbing pre-teen use of their platforms. But Facebook’s new child-focused app, which features animations and emojis, seems to cater to a younger audience, said Josh Golin, executive director of Campaign For A Commercial-Free Childhood.
“It looks like something that would appeal to a six-year-old or seven-year-old,” he said.
The app gets pre-teens used to Facebook’s platform, he said, “and then they transition to the mature version of Facebook”.
Facebook would not answer questions about how popular the messaging app has been. But analytics firm App Annie said Messenger Kids had been downloaded about 80,000 times on Apple’s iOS devices since it launched on December 4. It had been in the top 40 most popular kids’ apps since then.
University of Michigan developmental behavioural paediatrician Jenny Radesky, who co-signed the letter, said she had never met a parent who was clamouring to get their children onto social media at an earlier age.
“One can only assume that Facebook introduced it to engage users younger and younger,” Radesky said.
That was troubling, she said, because younger children had not yet developed the cognitive skills that enabled them to think about and regulate their thoughts and actions and “allow them to realise when persuasive technology design might be manipulating them”.
When Facebook launched Messenger Kids, the firm said it would not show ads or collect data for marketing. And it stressed it would not automatically move users to the regular Messenger or Facebook when they were old enough although it might give them the option to move contacts to Messenger down the line.