Child health advocates call for Facebook to shutter Messenger Kids app

The slings and arrows of outrage keep flying Facebook. Now a coalition of child health advocates has published an open letter addressing CEO Mark Zuckerberg and calling for the company to shutter Messenger Kids: Aka the Snapchat-ish comms program it launched in the US last December — targeted at the under 13s.

In the time Facebook explained Messenger Kids as an “simpler and safer way” for  children to video message and chat with family and friends “whenever they can’t be together in individual” — also said the product was “co-developed with parents, children and experts”.

The video messaging and chat program comprises a selection of manually GIFs and augmented simple lenses, emoji, stickers for spicing family messaging up.

At launching Facebook claimed, and also also highlighted that there were & ldquo; no ads & rdquo; or compensated content downloads inside the program: “Your kid’s info isn’t. ”

Though that particular message coming out of a ad giant whose business model depends on promoting usage of its products user information for ad functions can only hold as much water. And the company has been accused of trying to use Messenger Kids as, essentially, a ‘gateway medication’ to convince preschoolers using its goods — to have a better chance of onboarding them to its ad-targeting mainstream merchandise when they become teens.

A research conducted by UK media watchdog Ofcom last fall has suggested that use of social networking by children younger than 13 is on the rise — even though societal networks typically having an age limitation of 13-years-old for signups. (From the EU, the incoming GDPR  presents a 13-years age-limit on children having the ability to agree to use social media themselves, even though Member States can choose to increase the limit to 16 years.)

In practice there’s small unless their parents have been trapping their device usage — to prevent children who have access to your cellular device downloading and signing up for services and programs themselves. (Facebook states it closes the accounts of any underage Facebook users as it’s made conscious of them.) And concern about the impact of social networking pressures on children has been climbing.

Before this month, for instance, the UK government’s Children’s Commissioner for England known for parents to ban their children from using the Snapchat messaging program — citing concerns over addictive attributes and cyber bullying.

With Messenger Kids Facebook may well be spying a chance to attempt and outmanoeuvre its rival that is teen-focused by winning parents using a dedicated program over that bakes in controls.

This strategy of offering a environment for children to message with parentally approved contacts isn’t winning over everybody.

Spearheading a campaign against Facebook Messenger Kids, Boston-based not-for-profit the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood has gathered together a coalition of about 100 kid health advocates and groups to signal its open letter. It’s running a public request — under the motto ‘no Facebook for five year olds’.

From the letter the team describes it “especially irresponsible” of Facebook to have launched an program targeting preschoolers at a time when they state there is “mounting concern about how social media usage affects adolescents’ health”.

Last week, for instance, a study conducted by researchers at San Diego State University found that adolescents who spent more time on social networking, gaming, texting and video-chatting in their telephones weren’t as happy as those who played sports, went outdoors and socialized with folks face to face.

“Younger children are simply not ready to have networking reports,” the coalition asserts from the correspondence. “They are not old enough to navigate the complexities of online relationships, which often lead to conflicts and misunderstandings even among more older users. They also do not have a understanding of solitudeso appropriate to share with other people and who has access to videos, images, and their own conversations. ”

In addition they assert that Facebook’s Messenger Kids program is likely to result in children spending more time with digital devices.

“Already, teenagers report difficulty moderating their particular networking usage,&rdquo. “Messenger Kids will exacerbate this issue, as the anticipation of rsquo & friends; responses are going to be a powerful incentive for children to check — and stay on — a phone or tablet.

“Encouraging children to transfer their friendships online play which are crucial for developing developmental skills, including the ability to read emotion and displace the interactions and will interfere with, delay gratification, and engage with the physical universe. ”

The team goes on to rebut Facebook’s asserts that Messenger Kids helps attracts distant families nearer — by pointing out that a dedicated Facebook program isn’t essential for children to stay in touch with long distance relatives, also citing the plethora of other choices which may be used for that (such as with a parents’ Facebook or Skype account or Apple’s FaceTime or just making an traditional phone call) which do not require children to get their own account on any program.

“[T]he program’s overall impact on families and society is likely to be negative, normalizing social networking usage among young children and generating peer pressure for children to register for their initial account,” they assert, including: “Raising children in our new digital era is difficult enough. We ask that you do not use Facebook’s enormous reach and influence to make it tougher. Please make a solid statement by pulling the plug on Messenger Kids that Facebook is committed to the health of children and society. ”

Asked for a responses call to shut down Messenger Kids, a Facebook spokesperson sent us another email statement — reiterating its messaging

Messenger Kids is a messaging program which helps parents and children to chat in a safer manner, with parents constantly in charge of their kid’s interactions and contacts. Since we started rsquo we &;ve heard that Messenger Kids has helped them stay connected with their children and has empowered their children to stay in touch with relatives near and far. We’mums who travel for work getting updates from their children while they & rsquo, and ve heard stories of parents working being able read their children bedtime stories;re away. We worked to create Messenger Kids with an advisory committee of developmental and parenting experts, as well as with families and in partnership with the PTA. We continue to be focused on making Messenger Kids function as best experience it can be for families. We have been very clear that there is not any advertising in Messenger Kids.

Discussing what evidence there is to support concerns over the development impact of digital devices on preschool children, John Oates, a senior lecturer in developmental psychology at the Open University who specializes in early youth, told us : “The difficulty is that we have rather large profile anecdotal cases [of social networking concern, where the specific risk is miniature versus the entire volume of talks being routed]…  But, clearly the injury is potentially great — and the actual issue is balancing risks and injury. ”

“There is little scale evidence around actual developmental impacts on children. And I believe that’s it — and a problem’so difficult to understand how one would research that anyhow. But in to isolate cause and effect is really difficult. Because children differentially use and access these websites that is social because of the profiles — allow’s call them character profiles.

“Some children are more inclined to be drawn to utilize social networking and then a number of those children are more inclined to utilize it in adverse ways, and then a number of those children are more inclined to be then vulnerable, as a result, to threat. So the effect and cause chain that’s concerned is intricate. ”

Oates also points out that younger children, from the 6 to 12 years age range which Facebook Messenger Kids targets, are firstly not necessarily conscious of the risks and possible harms, and secondly will also be “not well able to analyze, rationally, the risks and make risk-free decisions”.

&ldquo I think there is a difficulty around all websites that is social in terms of children getting access to it if they’re not aware of the risks. Whether they are educated better or not is a tricky question — because if they’re not able to make logical, risk-based judgements… it could be argued that regardless of what parents do, and regardless of what education does… this is still risky for children,” he explained.

The other issue he raises as being a point of conversation and concern for child psychologists is the extent to which use of social networking may be a problem by taking kids.

“there’s a difficulty there, but there again it comes back to what differences in children predisposed them to get concerned in other social networking and so on and Snapchat,” TechCrunch was told by him. “also it seems that one of the motivations for children is a societal one, to believe they are a part of a social circle they can identify with.

&ldquo ;We know that children in this age range are very sensitive to peer approval and peer disapproval. So they ’re quite aware of texting on websites — even when they haven&rsquo. Because this is salient to them. So it’s actually the nature of the nexus they form that’s probably the element and the messaging within that. ”

“it’s a real challenge to unpick effect and cause in this area,” he included. “That’s answering these queries… is difficult. But I believe what we can do, on the other hand, is tentative conclusions can be drawn by us from what we do know about children’s development [including the strong influence of peers]. ”

Oates also increases the potential of programs that empower children to create social networks digitally (versus simply having the ability to do that face to face) as being a positive change — “for children seeing the world from a whole variety of viewpoints and seeing bits of the planet that they wouldn’t otherwise view; seeing other children’s points of views and so on etc”.

“There’s a lot of potential there and I wouldn’t be merely negative about this. But recognize that with whatever that opens up children’s worlds there are benefits as well as risks,” he included.

This article was updated to establish the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood is a non-profit which has been co-ordinating the campaign efforts against Messenger Kids

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