Facebook Messenger Kids

Facebook has rolled out Messenger Kids for parents to talk with their children under 13. Is it safe?

Earlier this week, Facebook announced an intriguing new product called Messenger Kids. As Product Management Director Loren Cheng noted in a blog post:

“Today, in the United States, we’re rolling out a preview of Messenger Kids, a new app that makes it easier for kids to safely video chat and message with family and friends when they can’t be together in person. 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.”

What exactly is Facebook Messenger Kids?

One thing to note is that Messenger Kids is a standalone app from Facebook. Let me remind you that the social network requires users to be at least 13 years old, but Messenger Kids has no age restrictions. It is also currently available in the App Store for iPad, iPod touch, and iPhone in the US.

Over the course of developing the app, Facebook did its due diligence to alleviate many parental fears including the below from the blog post:

“There are no ads in Messenger Kids and your child’s information isn’t used for ads. It is free to download and there are no in-app purchases. Messenger Kids is also designed to be compliant with the Children’s Online Privacy and Protection Act (COPPA).”

In theory, the app sounds cool. Knowing that my kids love to play with filters and the video add-ons for video chat, I could see this being something fun that could be used on my phone and on one of their devices. After talking briefly with some colleagues, we decided to test out the features of the app.

Setup is pretty simple. The interesting thing is that the app appears to authorize the sharing through Facebook, not requiring any permissions from the device. You can also add multiple children to the interface. When a child wants to add a contact, the parent gets an alert in Facebook Messenger asking for approval.

Is Facebook Messenger Kids safe?

Overall, the environment seems very sterile and secure. The camera filters resemble those of Snapchat (and could be quite addictive), and the GIF selection is appropriate for kids.

One potential downside we discussed is the lack of text filtering. If a kid asks their parent to add all of their classmates who are also using Messenger Kids, for example, the app could become just another way for kids to bully or gang up on one another. Since this app is currently in beta, I could see this as something Facebook looks to fix before the full release.

The possibility of bullying is something parents need to speak about openly with their kids. The app is for kids under 13, so it will require trust — between the kids, their parents, and the friends they connect with. David Emm of Kaspersky Lab’s GReAT recommends the following tips to start (you can read the full post with more tips here):

  1. Talk to your children about the potential dangers of chatting online.
  2. Encourage them to talk to you about their online experiences and, in particular, anything that makes them feel uncomfortable or threatened.  Protecting children from cyberbullies is especially challenging with smartphones, which offer an abundance of ways to target them, especially out of their parents’ view. Deal with cyberbullying as you would deal with bullying in real life: Encourage children to be open and talk to a trusted adult if they receive any threatening or inappropriate messages. Numbers and contacts on apps can both be blocked if they are making children uncomfortable or unhappy.
  3. Set clear ground rules about what they can and can’t do online, and explain why you have put them in place. Review these regularly as your child gets older.

One more thing: Parents also need to discuss what is OK to share and what is not, to try and avoid nightmare scenarios such as sextortion.