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Child health advocates call for Facebook to shutter Messenger Kids app

Child health advocates call for Facebook to shutter Messenger Kids app
From TechCrunch - January 30, 2018

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

At the time Facebook described Messenger Kidsas an easier and safer way forkids to video chat and message with family and friends when they cant be together in personand said the product had been co-developed with parents, kids and experts.

The video chat and messaging app includes a child-friendly selection of augmented reality lenses, emoji, stickers and manually curated GIFs for spicing up family messaging.

At launch Facebook also emphasized there were no ads or paid content downloads inside the app, and also claimed: Your childs information isnt used for ads.

Though that particular message coming from a people-profiling ad giant whose business model entirely depends on encouraging usage of its products in order to harvest user data for ad targeting purposes can only hold so much water. And the company has been accused of trying to use Messenger Kids as, essentially, a gateway drug to familiarize preschoolers with its productsto have a better chance of onboarding them into its ad-targeting mainstream product when they become teenagers.

A study conducted by UK media watchdog Ofcom last fallhas suggested that use of social media by children younger than 13 is on the risedespite social networks typically having an age limit of 13-years-old for signups. (In the EU, the incoming GDPRintroduces a 13-years age-limit on kids being able to consent to use social media themselves, though Member States can choose to raise the limit to 16 years.)

In practice theres little to stop kids who have access to a mobile device downloading and signing up for apps and services themselvesunless their parents are actively policing their device use. (Facebook says it closes the accounts of any underage Facebook users when its made aware of them.) And concern about the impact of social media pressures on children has been rising.

Earlier this month, for example, the UK governments Childrens Commissioner for England called for parents to ban their kids from using the Snapchat messaging appciting concerns over addictive features and cyber bullying.

With Messenger Kids Facebook may well be spying an opportunity to try to outmanoeuvre its teen-focused rival by winning over parents with a dedicated app that bakes in parental controls.

However this strategy of offering a sandboxed environment for kids to message with parentally approved contacts isnt winning over everyone.

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 around 100 child health advocates and groups to sign its open letter. Its also running a public petition under the slogan no Facebook for five year olds.

In the letter the group describes it as particularly irresponsible of Facebook to have launched an app targeting preschoolers at a time when they say there is mounting concern about how social media use affects adolescents wellbeing.

Last week, for example, a study conducted by researchers at San Diego State University found that teens who spent more time on social media, gaming, texting and video-chatting on their phones were not as happy as those who played sports, went outside and interacted with people face to face.

Younger children are simply not ready to have social media accounts, the coalition argues in the letter. They are not old enough to navigate the complexities of online relationships, which often lead to misunderstandings and conflicts even among more mature users. They also do not have a fully developed understanding of privacy, including whats appropriate to share with others and who has access to their conversations, pictures, and videos.

They also argue that Facebooks Messenger Kids app is likely to result in young kids spending more time using digital devices.

Already, adolescents report difficulty moderating their own social media use, they write. Messenger Kids will exacerbate this problem, as the anticipation of friends responses will be a powerful incentive for children to checkand stay ona phone or tablet.

Encouraging kids to move their friendships online will interfere with and displace the face-to-face interactions and play that are crucial for building healthy developmental skills, including the ability to read human emotion, delay gratification, and engage with the physical world.

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