Why I decided to install Messenger Kids

I’ve been struggling with whether or not to download Facebook’s new app aimed at children, Messenger Kids, onto my daughter’s iPad. This weekend, I took the plunge. I sat with her as she typed her first message and sent a selfie. I watched as she discovered GIFs. I wasn’t sure I had done the right thing.

No one wants to surrender their kids to online social networks, but children can be exposed to even more danger by going around their parents’ backs.

This point was drilled home for me a few days ago, when a friend discovered her daughter downloaded the messaging app IMVU without her parents’ knowledge. The child was almost immediately contacted by an adult man, whose conversations indicated he was a child predator in the early stages of grooming his victim. (The police were called and are now investigating.)

The child told her parents she installed the app to talk to school friends about a game they were playing. Her friends were on the app, and she wanted to be, too.

Another friend of mine recently installed Kik on her daughters’ Android phones because they wanted to message their friends, and their phones didn’t have cell service. She didn’t know that Kik was one of the worst of them all in terms of its adoption by child abusers, according to a 2017 investigation that dubbed it the “de facto app for grooming children online.” (I filled her in.)

You see, the kids are already online. You can’t unplug them. That ship has sailed.

There are plenty of reasons to hate the idea of Messenger Kids, though. The messaging solution with built-in parental controls has arrived at a time when there’s mounting concern over how use of social media has detrimental impacts on people’s well-being, as well as concern over how technology companies have irresponsibly developed products aimed to addict their users without understanding the negative consequences of those actions.

Into this new understanding of technology’s downsides and dark nature comes Messenger Kids. That’s pretty bad timing.

Child health advocates have called for Facebook to shut down Messenger Kids. They make valid points. The app has even been compared to cigarette companies advertising their products to minors.

But as parent myself, it’s been difficult to for me to dismiss Messenger Kids as an entirely evil product.

What’s worse, I think, are the other messaging apps that have for years turned a blind eye to the fact that they have user bases filled with children – not just minors under the age of 18, but actual children, under the age of 13.

A number of social apps are troublesome, too, because they have messaging components built-in. Snapchat and Musical.ly, for example, are heavily used by the under-13 crowd who have learned to lie about their ages in order to participate.

But Snapchat has been seeing slowing user growth, so its first priority will not be making sure all its users are of age. Because Wall Street strictly judges social networks on growth metrics, they’re often scared to purge fake accounts and underage users.

Unlike Facebook, most companies don’t have the luxury of making choices that could slow user growth, or time spent in-app, as Facebook just remarkably did.

I don’t want to demonize parents who have allowed their kids to use social apps at young ages. None of the questions around kids’ use of devices and social media are easy. There isn’t one set of definitive guidelines about what’s right or wrong.

Ask yourself: is it okay to let the kids use Snapchat, when all they really want to do is play with the funny face filters and send those pictures to a few friends? Is letting them goof around on Musical.ly a better alternative to YouTube given the latter’s far more public, and sizable audience of viewers (and ongoing issuesaroundchild exploitation?) Should you turn on iMessage for the kids, so they can text grandma and grandpa?

For some parents, the answer is a hard no. They lock down kids’ devices to include nothing but pre-approved games.

This is problematic, too, because those same kids will be soon old enough to be handed their own smartphones. They’ll have had no time to practice online communication in a more supervised environment. And simply banning apps doesn’t teach children how to critically evaluate them, either.

Arguably, we should have had better solutions for kids years ago.

Apple should have developed parental controls for iMessage as soon as they began marketing iPads as kids’ devices. The OS makers should have created “kids profiles” for iPads and Android devices that are as simple as creating a kids profile on Netflix. But they have not.

Facebook is the first to acknowledge that kids are already all over messaging apps and social media, and it created a solution to address the lack of parental oversight of kids’ existing behavior.

Messenger Kids, for all its faults, offers something in between full access to apps and none at all. It’s like a set of training wheels for the online world. A place where, in theory, parent and child work together to practice messaging. A place where parents have say-so over who the child can talk to, and who they cannot.

That being said, I do believe that Messenger Kids, for all its security benefits, will be used as a gateway drug to entice the next generation of Facebook users. And I do not like that my kid is being pulled into Facebook this young.

But ignoring the chance to teach her about social messaging doesn’t feel right either.

So with conflicted emotions, I installed Messenger Kids to my daughter’s tablet this weekend. I added friends and approved adults, like family members. The app is simple to use in the way that Facebook products are, thanks to the company’s years of understanding of user interface and user experience development.

I sat with my child as she typed out her first message on Messenger Kids and snapped a selfie to share in a chat. When she found the app’s GIF button, she then sent 10 in a row and we talked about how that could be annoying to the recipient. We talked about how to use GIFs appropriately. I also helped her understand when it was time to end a conversation to respect the recipient’s time.

We’ll probably have to repeat these lessons and others a million more times.

The app still requires parents do spot checks of their child’s device to ensure bullying is not taking place. (I’d like to see Facebook implement an alerts system based on keyword scanning and sentiment analysis for this.)

I realize that I could have had a similar messaging “practice session” on iMessage, but not everyone my daughter wants to talk with has an Apple device, and few kids her age (she’s 8) have smartphones with cell service, which limits her ability to practice over SMS text messaging.

Messenger Kids, presumably, could reach more of her friends and family.

Unfortunately, I doubt that many of her friends’ parents will install the app thanks to the current narrative that any amount of social media for children is a bad amount of social media; that kids shouldn’t be using social media – period; that kids don’t know how to behave online, so banning apps is the right solution, not just setting limits on screen time while prioritizing in-person play time. The narrative is that Facebook is gross and wrong for targeting kids, so obviously don’t support the company by installing this app.

I worry this is not the answer. I worry that the pundits are getting this wrong.

I worry also that I’m wrong. I don’t know.

I know Facebook seems untrustworthy. I know social media turned out not to be the force for good that people once thought. It can be beautiful and kind and horrible and ugly, just like the world itself. But I also know it won’t disappear overnight.

If you will give your kids a smartphone one day, shouldn’t you teach them how to use it, too? Shouldn’t that include messaging and social media? Shouldn’t you teach them while they’re still young enough to listen?

Facebook’s new app is one of the only messaging apps that exists to protect kids, and one of few that could scale.

Maybe Messenger Kids is the right product from the wrong company. But until Apple or Google step up, it’s what we’ve got.

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