Cybersafety experts weigh in on Facebook's new Messenger app for kids: 'This is horrifying'

Korin Miller
How young is too young for Facebook?
How young is too young for Facebook?

Facebook made a big announcement on Monday: The company has launched a messaging app that’s designed just for kids.

Dubbed Messenger Kids, the app lets kids use Facebook’s messaging tool, making it the first time the company has let children under the age of 13 officially use its software. “Regular” Facebook still has an official use restriction for kids under the age of 13.

Messenger Kids is a lot like the regular Facebook Messenger app, but it injects some parental control. With the app, kids can share messages, make video calls, and send selfies, GIFS, and stickers to their friends on a list that’s approved by their parents. Messages don’t disappear and can’t be hidden in case parents want to monitor them, Facebook says on its website. The app also lets kids make video calls through the app using WiFi, so they don’t actually need a phone number to reach someone.

The app doesn’t contain ads, and Facebook says that it won’t share data from it with advertisers. Facebook also says on its website that Messenger Kids is compliant with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).

While Facebook points out that it created the app with input from parents and the company stresses that it’s safe, experts aren’t totally convinced.

The app allows the Facebook friends of a child’s parents to see that they have Messenger Kids, which is concerning, Jesse Weinberger, cybersafety speaker and author of The Boogeyman Exists; And He’s In Your Child’s Back Pocket, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “This is horrifying,” she says. “The overwhelming majority of sexual predator cases involve parents’ friends. Parents’ friends have no business finding children on social media.” Weinberger points out that everyone has Facebook friends that they’re not really friends with or whose invitation they accepted even if they didn’t really want to, and those people now can see that a person’s child is available on an online messaging service.

Gina Posner, a pediatrician at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, Calif., tells Yahoo Lifestyle that she’s “scared” about the concept. “Kids’ brains aren’t mature enough to understand signs of danger,” she says. She also has concerns about the potential for online bullying. “This is just one more way for kids to have access to social media that can lead to more bullying,” Posner says.

Donna Rice Hughes, president of the Internet safety organization Enough Is Enough, tells Yahoo Lifestyle that she’s concerned that introducing a Facebook product to young kids is only going to make them want to use the main Facebook product, as well as other apps like this — even though it’s probably not something that they’re aware of now. Messenger Kids also doesn’t have time limits or a monitoring feature, which she says are important components that parents should have on any internet device a child has access to. “If you don’t build in time limits right off the bat, you’ve got a problem,” she says.

Facebook requires that children use their first and last name and a picture of themselves for the app, which Hughes also says is concerning. “My question is why?” she says. “It would be much safer if it was a screen name and an emoji.”

But Liz Repking of Cyber Safety Consulting tells Yahoo Lifestyle that the app’s not all bad. “Overall I’d love to see a stronger movement towards restricting social media to kids who are under 13, but the reality is that’s not going to happen,” she says, pointing out that kids simply lie about their birth date in order to join social media networks. “This gives functionality that allows parents to be involved,” she adds.

If you want to let your child use Messenger Kids, Repking recommends educating him or her on what it means to be safe, appropriate, and savvy online. “In order for parents to effectively do that, they need to understand the app and let their kids know that they have the ability to check in and see what they’re doing,” she says. This should add another layer of accountability to help keep children in check, she says.

Overall, experts still think that children are too young for something like this. “If your child wants to have a video chat with someone, have them use your Messenger app while you’re there,” Weinberger says. “This app doesn’t serve a real purpose.”

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