When is a child old enough for social media? It’s a question that’s not likely to be definitively answered anytime soon. While many social media sites technically require users to be 13 or older, to make it easier for them to stay in compliance with the Children’s Online Privacy and Protection Act (COPPA), the reality is that there are few checks to ensure that younger children aren’t using these platforms. Many preteens do use social media and messaging apps, some with their parents’ permission and some without. Should these platforms cater to younger users? That’s a question Facebook is exploring with their new Messenger Kids app.
What is It?
Odds are that you’re already familiar with Facebook’s original Messenger app, which allows users to send private text messages, photos, videos, audio clips, and GIFs. Messenger Kids is a similar product, but with parental controls that allow parents to add and approve contacts and supervise messages.
Parents can connect to the Messenger Kids from their own Messenger apps. If kids report inappropriate contact on the Messenger Kids app, parents receive an alert. Kids can’t hide their messages from parents, and parents can remove any contacts that they don’t approve of.
What’s the Problem?
Some experts have harshly criticized Facebook for the Messenger Kids app, going so far as to compare the company to cigarette manufacturers creating ads that targeted kids and teens. The concern is that this app will function as a “gateway drug”, acclimating kids to social media at younger and younger ages, and ensuring that when they reach their teen years, not only will they have learned to integrate social media into their daily lives, they’ll also naturally gravitate to Facebook, since it’s the platform that they grew up on.
Experts are concerned that the Messenger Kids app will normalize social media use among younger children, and will negatively impact their development. Some believe that kids are unable to effectively navigate online development, others worry that children will feel peer pressure to begin using social media before they’re ready. And of course, increased social media use by young children raises the possibility of increased cyberbullying among this age group.
What Are the Positives?
Not everyone is opposed to the app. Facebook worked with its own team of experts to create the Messenger Kids app, and they’ve tried to address some of these issues with their parental controls and other tools. They’ve announced additional tools, such as the ability to shut off the app during certain periods, like bedtime and homework time. And Facebook claims that the app is ad-free and won’t collect children’s personal information.
Some parents also see value in the app. Many kids are already using the social media and messaging apps that are aimed at teenagers and adults. It can be argued that the cat is already out of the bag, and the best way to protect children is to give them apps designed for their safety. Some also point out that an app like Messenger Kids can function similarly to training wheels, getting kids ready for the apps that they’ll inevitably use in the future, and can teach them from an early age how to use those apps safely and responsibly while they’re still young enough to be closely monitored.
Should your child use Facebook’s Messenger Kids app, or should you avoid it completely? It’s a difficult question, and the answers will vary from family to family. One thing is for certain – parental oversight is the key to protecting children of any age online. Parental monitoring software can help you as you set and enforce rules about social media and messaging for your child. To find out how it works, get our free trial.