What Parents Should Know About Facebook’s New Messenger Kids

Naomi Schaefer Riley’s new book, Be the Parent, Please: Stop Banning Seesaws and Start Banning Snapchat, will be published January 8, 2018.

When it comes to children and technology, we always seem to be worried about the wrong things. If you needed any more confirmation of this, just check out the media coverage of Facebook’s new Messenger Kids program.

In the New York Times, for instance, most of the concerns people express focus on issues of privacy or the exposure of children to advertising. A spokesman for Common Sense Media wanted Facebook to make a public commitment to keep the site free of ads. And a representative of the Center for Digital Democracy suggested this was just another way for Facebook to build brand loyalty while kids were still young. Others expressed concerns about the company collecting information on kids. (The company says that the app is compliant with federal law, which bans the collection of such information without parents’ permission.)

But the real dangers of social media do not come from strangers. Of course you don’t want your child to reveal personal information to strangers online. And of course you’d rather not have advertisers be able to target your child. But if you think about the cases of serious harm done by social media to children in recent years, they have been initiated by acquaintances or even close friends, not advertisers.

For every case like Sabriya McLean’s, a fifteen-year-old who was brutally murdered by a man she met on Facebook, there are dozens like Ashawnty Davis, a ten-year-old who hung herself after a video of her fighting with other girls at school appeared online. And those are just the most serious issues.

Every day thousands of children and teenagers are subject to a torrent of abuse online by their peers. We’re supposed to be confident that Messenger Kids only allows kids to communicate with contacts whom their parents approve but the truth is that most of the harmful conversations are happening with kids whom you know and with whom your kids are friends.

Defenders of the technology will say that kids have always been mean. But the fact that these online conversations go on at all hours of the day and the fact that they are permanently available for others to see means that they are different from kids writing on bathroom walls at school.

The fact that Messenger Kids will allow children to send texts, photos and engage in video chats means that it will come with all the same problems as all texting. There will be inappropriate pictures; there will likely be harassment and bullying. The fact that kids will be able to doodle on these pictures may seem cute now, but just wait until you see what they start drawing.

Facebook claims the new app is about “facilitating communication among families.” On the Today show, producers actually show kids using the video chat app to talk to grandparents and the like. But there is no discussion of the fact that kids can simply use existing technology to video-chat with distant relatives. Or why they can’t just use the phone.

There are plenty of parents who will see Messenger Kids as a way to actually protect kids, to ensure that they communicate only with an approved group and to get them to be more responsible about the way they use social media when they get older. One father of three children ages six months to eight years, told the New York Times, “Today, much of the time our options come down to giving kids devices and trusting things will work out, watching them closely at all times, or banning technology. Tech is going to be something kids adopt. The question is how this will happen.”

If Facebook has convinced him that there is some alternative in which parents won’t have to monitor their kids’ use of Messenger Kids simply because parents will get to approve of their children’s contacts, then the company has succeeded. But parents will have failed.

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