Child experts: Just say 'no' to Facebook's children's app

BOSTON -- Child development experts and advocates are urging Facebook to pull the plug on its new messaging app aimed at kids.

A group letter sent Tuesday to CEO Mark Zuckerberg argues younger children -- the app is intended for those under 13 -- aren't ready to have social media accounts, navigate the complexities of online relationships or protect their own 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 doesn't 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 letting 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 could move on to a rival service such as Snapchat.

A group of 100 experts, advocates and parenting organizations is contesting Facebook's claims of filling a need. Led by the Boston-based Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, the group includes psychiatrists, pediatricians, 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 criticized Facebook for "targeting younger children with a new product."

In a statement, Facebook said on Monday the app "helps parents and children to chat in a safer way," and emphasized parents are "always in control" of their kids' activity. The social media giant added that it consulted with parenting experts and families, and said "there is no advertising in Messenger Kids."

A variety of experts and technology insiders have begun questioning the effects smartphones and social media apps are having on people's health and mental well-being -- whether kids, teens or adults. Sean Parker, Facebook's first president, said late last year that the social media platform exploits "vulnerability in human psychology" to addict users. A chorus of other early employees and investors piled on with similar criticisms.

Many preteens have already found their way onto Facebook and more youth-oriented social media platforms such as Snapchat and Facebook's own Instagram, despite internal rules requiring users to be at least 13 years old. Those rules are based in part on federal law, which prohibits internet companies from collecting personal information on children without their parents' permission and imposes restrictions on advertising to them.

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