Facebook rolls out Messenger for kids, but is it safe?

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With more than 2 billion users, Facebook is one of the most successful tech companies on Earth, and it continues to expand its reach. On Monday, the social networking giant rolled out a preview of Messenger Kids, a new app for children ages six to 12.

Facebook says the app is intended to make it “easier for kids to safely video chat and message with family and friends when they can’t be together in person.” The Menlo Park, California-based company says they consulted with “thousands of parents, associations like National PTA, and parenting experts” before deciding to create the app, which gives children under age 13 (Facebook’s age limit) a digital playground.

Facebook launches Messenger Kids app for children under 13

The app is sure to rile privacy advocates, who say Facebook already has too much of people’s personal data under their control. It also comes at a time when the debate over “sharenting,” the practice of parents sharing huge swaths of their children’s developmental years without their kids’ consent, is starting to play a larger role in what we see online.

An eye-opening 2016 study showed a deepening chasm between what parents thought was OK to share about their children and what kids were comfortable with.

“The parents said, ‘We don’t need rules — we’re fine,’ and the children said, ‘Our parents need rules,’ ” Bahareh Keith, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Florida College of Medicine, told NPR. “The children wanted autonomy about this issue and were worried about their parents sharing information about them.”

The new app, available only on IOS initially, is touted as giving a much-needed voice to children while keeping parental control at the forefront. The company says that two children who want to chat in the app would have to be approved by each parents’ Facebook account.

“It’s just like setting up a play date,” said Antigone Davis, Facebook’s head of global safety, according to the Washington Post. Facebook’s promotional images of the product show smiling faces of what is presumed to be Grandpa, Grandma and Mom and Dad all on in a fun-filled video chat.

But the app raises privacy concerns: For one, Facebook says the app, which is free of advertising, must be set up by a parent, but doesn’t elaborate how this can be ensured. In essence, how easy would it be to create a faux account, with a phony child or for someone to impersonate a parent? On the surface, the app doesn’t explain how it will address these issues security-wise.

There’s also the issue of how much of a child’s data the company will mine, as we all know Facebook is in the data-mining business.


Messenger Kids: How the app works

The company stresses that Messenger Kids is really a utility for parents: They must download the app using their own login information, then set up a Messenger Kids account on their child’s device (this does not create a Facebook account for the child).

Once a child’s name has been added as a Messenger user, the grown-up will have access to parental controls from their own Facebook account, where they can add approved contacts for the child.

“The home screen shows them at a glance who they are approved to talk to, and when those contacts are online,” the company says in a news release. Of course, the app is packed with whimsical emojis, drawing tools, “kid-appropriate” GIFs and other bells and whistles  to enrich the experience for minors.

Money expert Clark Howard has written quite a bit about Facebook and privacy. In his book Living Large in Lean Times he says there are some things you shouldn’t post on Facebook no matter what. “Here’s a quick rundown of information you shouldn’t post on Facebook; full home address, place of birth, phone numbers and educational background.”

“While I don’t want to scare you away from the joys of being connected, I do want you to be smart about it and stay safe.”

Weeks after Messenger was rolled out to children, a group of health experts petitioned Facebook to shut the app down. Here’s our story on why.

RELATED: 5 Facebook hoaxes and how to spot them

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