Most of us can remember growing up and calling friends on the family phone to talk about homework or summer plans. Today, many households don’t even have a landline. Kids may not have their own phones, and even those with tablets can’t use most messaging apps because they don’t have their own mobile number to associate it with. And then there’s the issue of being on those apps in the first place. Parents want to be able to control who their children are able to talk to online and know when a conversation is problematic.
Now Facebook is offering a solution in the form of a kids-only app called Messenger Kids. Children still aren’t allowed to have full-blown Facebook accounts until they’re 13 years old. Instead, parents are able to use their own Facebook accounts to create Messenger profiles for their kids. These profiles have most of the features of full-blown Messenger, but messages are sent and received exclusively from a smartphone, tablet, or web-connected device such as an iPod touch and are controlled by Mom and Dad. (Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization “dedicated to helping kids thrive in a world of media and technology” estimates that 93% of 6- to 12-year-olds in the U.S. have access to tablets and smartphones, and 68% have a device of their own.)
Facebook Kids is available in the App Store for iOS devices starting today. The company plans to offer versions for Android devices and Amazon’s Fire tablets in the coming months.
“Communication is really a basic need,” Facebook’s VP of messaging services David Marcus said at a press briefing about the app. “They [kids] want to use messaging and they use it today. It’s just not done in a controlled fashion.”
Control is key to Messenger Kids. Kids’ names don’t show up in searches of Messenger users. Once parents create an account, they get to decide who their children are able to talk to. Parents can add friends and family they’re personally connected with–and those users’ kids, if they’re on Messenger Kids–to their offspring’s list of approved chat friends. So, if Sally wants to be Messenger Kids friends with Bobby but you don’t know Bobby’s mom and aren’t Facebook friends with her, it will be a no-go until you are.
At the press briefing, Antigone Davis, Facebook’s head of global safety and families, likened a parent signing a kid up to coordinating a playdate. “They’re sending their child off. They want their child to have fun and explore, but they want to know that they’re safe,” she said.
As part of the research Facebook conducted for this project, it held roundtables all over the country with organizations such as the national PTA and Blue Star Families. The latter is an organization that works with military families, which tend to be huge users of messaging apps.
“We heard three things in particular,” said Davis. “One is they want more control over who their children have contact with when they’re dealing with these technologies. Two is that they want to know that the content their child is being exposed to is appropriate, and three they want to have better control over the time and way in which their child spends time with these technologies.”
Just as with regular Facebook, Messenger Kids users can send text-based messages to friends and family as well as participate in video chats. In order to be part of a group video chat, the child will need to have all of the participants on his or her approved friends list.
Kids have access to a number of kid-approved GIFs, masks, emojis, and sound effects also available to play with that were designed to be appropriate to youngsters in the 6-11 age range. And they can chat with adults who are using the regular Messenger app, so you don’t have to get the entire family on board with a new app just so your child can join.
Conversations within Messenger Kids are monitored, and should the app’s AI detect an inappropriate word or image it won’t be sent. Kids can also report activity they find inappropriate or hurtful, a move that will also send a note to parents letting them know there was an incident such as “Sally reported Bobby.” (It won’t, however, share the allegedly offensive image or message–to see that, you’ll need Sally’s iPad.)
“One of the things parents talked about over and over is that they not only wanted their kids to be safe, but they wanted to be in the loop,” said product management director Loren Cheng. They just didn’t feel integrated enough with the experience.”
With Messenger Kids, parents are involved every step of the way. For instance, if a contact is removed from a child’s friend list, then the child will have to get parental approval before that person can be added to their list again. That can prompt a conversation about what went wrong with the friendship to begin with and allows parents to turn the experience into something to learn from.
Messenger Kids is ad-free and free to download with no in-app purchases. It’s also compliant with the Children’s Online Privacy and Protection Act (COPPA). The best part for Facebook? When the children who use it turn 13, they’ll be primed for full-fledged Facebook, no coaxing required.