Facebook’s Messenger app for children has officially launched in Australia this week, allowing kids the opportunity to chat and video call their friends through the platform.
Not dissimilar to the ‘full-grown’ version, the app has been gradually rolled out to various countries since 2017 – and updated in the process – and Australia was one of 70-odd that gained access to it on Thursday.
On the surface, it looks a lot like the Messenger app available to all Facebook users – but there’s a lot of differences that tailor it to younger users. (Facebook’s minimum age for a regular account is 13, and Messenger Kids is aimed at users aged six to 12.)
The biggest difference that makes it suitable for children – and will appease a lot of parental concerns – is how parents can vet conversations and connections, children’s cyber security expert Yasmin London told The New Daily.
Ms London is a former police officer and the executive director of ySafe, a national cyber security education provider.
She rates Messenger Kids as “really good” and said it has been designed with safety in mind.
“I can say, hand on my heart, I’ve been in meetings (with Facebook) and they are really trying to make things safer,” Ms London said.
“The key factor is that it is controlled by parents. They’re really in the driver’s seat with controlling what kids can and can’t do.”
Common reactions from parents (many ironically expressed on social media) has seen concerns raised not just about privacy, but about the potential for children to be targeted for advertising.
Facebook has categorically denied that Messenger Kids will have ads – and it will not be harvesting users’ data for its own or third-party use, either.
Not too little, not too much, just right
One of the features that is impressing Ms London most about Messenger Kids is the advent of sleep mode.
We’re seeing it popping up as a trend in apps now, she said, and it’s an easy, useful way for parents to control how much time their child spends in the app – and when.
So what is the sweet spot for how long a kid should be using this method of communication?
“A lot of research suggests up to an hour a day for a child aged 10 and over – which is the age group this app is aimed at – can be seen to be beneficial for that child, especially in times of isolation,” Ms London said.
“Anything goes over that hour, edging towards two hours, has been shown to have negative effects for kids.
“But that capacity for chat groups and video calls for 45 minutes, talking with their friends (can be very healthy).”
It’s Messenger … but different
A Messenger Kids account is linked to a ‘grown up’ account – there’s no need for kids to create their own profile, or attach a mobile number.
So parents have remote control and access to their child’s contact list and conversations.
Children can add their friends – but parents will get an alert, so they can make sure it’s a verified contact, Ms London explained.
Parents will also be able to view a 30-day activity log: Who their child has been speaking with, and view any multimedia that’s being shared.
Here’s where parents will need to find the balance between control and trust, Ms London said.
“It offers a lot of intel to parents. It’s a fine line, but parents have a right to this information and it’s a really good opportunity for discussions – how we speak to each other online – that sort of thing,” she said.
“There is no replacement for parental involvement. That’s the gold standard for cyber safety.”
Instead of using it as a way to monitor children’s activity, Ms London recommended harnessing Messenger Kids – and apps like it – to understand how their children use and benefit from it.
“We’re seeing a bit of a trend now with loots of social media platforms with lots of bonding between parents and kids. It’s a really big trend on TikTok, for example, parents and grandparents getting involved and doing these dance moves with their kids,” she said.
“It’s an opportunity for kids to teach their parents the benefits of social media – there’s age-appropriate stickers and filters that they can have some fun.”