Facebook Releases Messenger App for Kids

Facebook Messenger has secured one billion active monthly users around the world and now wants to capture its youngest demographic: kids.

The social media company is rolling out a new standalone Messenger app designed for kids with built-in parental controls. The new app aimed at children under the age of 13 will allow kids to video chat and send texts, pictures and videos to parent-approved friends and family from their own Messenger Kids account.

“After talking to thousands of parents, associations like National PTA, and parenting experts in the US, we found that there’s a need for a messaging app that lets kids connect with people they love but also has the level of control parents want,” Facebook wrote in a blog post.

Although Messenger Kids is downloaded on a kids’ tablet and smartphone for their own use, parents can oversee the messaging app from their Facebook account.

Parents must download the app, authenticate the app from their own Facebook account, and create a Messenger account for their kids — which the company said is not a Facebook account. Parents must also approve the contacts their kids request to communicate with through an app-specific control panel in their main Facebook account. The company said the app is ad-free and any information collected won’t be used for ads.

A decade ago, kids having their own smartphone or tablet may have been hard to process, but today digital devices, interactive games and streaming videos online are a part of a child’s upbringing in North America.

That hasn’t come with concerns and debate over what age is appropriate for children to start using tablets and smartphones, and the effects of screen time from the glowing connected devices have on their cognitive and physiological development.

Regardless of controversy, roughly 93 per cent of 6 to 12 year olds in the U.S. have access to tablets or smartphones, and 66 per cent have their own device, according to research from Dubit.

“Research shows that kids are using apps that are intended for teens and adults,” said Antigone Davis, Facebook’s public policy director and global head of safety. She spoke about the company’s reasoning and approach to creating its first product for children in a separate blog post.

“We know that when building for kids, we have to get it right and we’re taking that responsibility seriously… We created Messenger Kids with the belief that parents are ultimately the best judges of their kids’ technology use, and the parents we’ve spoken to have asked for a better way to control the way their children message,” she wrote.

Davis said the company tapped leading child development experts, educators and parents, as well as advisors in online safety and children’s media to guide their approach to the new app from organizations like the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and Connect Safely.

“We hope that developing an app that gives parents more control over their kids’ online experience is a step in the right direction, but we think the industry also needs a better understanding of tech’s long-term impact on children,” said Davis.

As such, Facebook is launching a $1-million research fund to look into the effect of technology on children and working with academics, experts and partners across the industry.

Messenger Kids is currently only available in the U.S. and a preview is available for download in the App Store for iPad, iPod touch and iPhone. Facebook said the app will be coming to Amazon App Store and Google Play Store in the coming months, but no word yet if the app will roll out to other countries.