Messenger Kids Has Some Child Health Experts Concerned, And They Want It Shut Down

By Joan Goodchild

A new social media app, launched by Facebook and aimed at kids under 13, has child health advocacy groups alarmed. Known as Messenger Kids, it allows children to message and make video calls with other connections.

According to the Facebook site, Messenger Kids is "a free video calling and messaging app designed for kids to connect with close friends and family from their tablet or smartphone. Kids can only connect with parent-approved contacts, which creates a more controlled environment. Group or one-on-one video calls with loved ones are more fun with interactive masks, reactions and sound effects."

While the main Facebook site is only available to people aged 13 and older, Facebook officials said the aim of Messenger Kids is a safe, parent-supervised environment where children can enjoy some of the features of Facebook.

"Parents fully control the contact list and decide who can connect with their children. Messages don't disappear and can't be hidden in case parents would like to check in."

But several child advocacy groups don't like the concept and say that kids under 13 are simply too young for social media use of any kind. They want Facebook to shutter Messenger Kids.

The effort is led by the Boston-based Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) and includes support from other organizations, including the ACLU of Massachusetts, Media Education Foundation, Defending the Early Years and Parent Coalition for Student Privacy. The groups issued a joint letter asking Facebook to discontinue the app.

"A growing body of research shows adolescents are negatively affected by time on social media," said Josh Golin, Executive Director of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. "Social media use is linked to depression, less life satisfaction, sleep disturbances. Young children are even less equipped to deal with the addictive challenges of using it and it seems dangerous to be encouraging kids to be on social media."

Golin said he is particularly concerned about the addictive nature of social media and the dopamine rush associated with repeatedly checking for messages. Children are too young handle healthy use of these sites, he said, and they are also unnecessary for young kids.

"Facebook is saying that this is a way to be in touch with a long-distance relative," said Golin. "There are already an abundance of tools to do that. They can use the old-fashion phone."

In creating Messenger Kids, Facebook created an advisory committee of children's health experts. One of them is Kristelle Lavallee, content strategist at the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children's Hospital, who thinks the app is misunderstood by those speaking out against it.

"It is a tool, neither good or bad," said Lavallee. "It is designed to be implemented with a parent, not to be passed on to kids and just let them have it. Parents should be right there with their children when they are using social media, teaching them to be a good digital citizen."

Lavallee said despite age restrictions, research shows many kids younger than 13 are already using social media and using Messenger Kids with closely-guided supervision can help children develop good social media habits and learn healthy behavior around its use.

"We need to take it out of this negative space, and look at it as a powerful tool and show them around," she said. "We need to show them how you interact with others in a respectful and kind way. This is a wonderful way for parents to understand that the digital domain is not just a kid domain, but also a place where they need to be a parent."

But CCFC's Golin isn't convinced, and think's the best use of social media for children is none at all.

"We don't feel like this is something that could be tweaked," he said. "We are really hoping Facebook will pull this."