Facebook now has a messaging app for kids - its first product aimed at young children. The move gives Facebook a way to court younger users, with their parents' permission. It also puts the social network at the heart of the ongoing debate about how and when children should start using digital products.
The app, called Messenger Kids, allows users under the age of 13 to send texts, videos and photos; they can draw on the pictures they send and add stickers. The app, which launches Monday in the United States, gives the company access to a new market whose age prohibits them from using the firm's main social network. The narrowed app was designed after consultation with hundreds of parents and several children's advocates, such as the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Facebook said.
The company took many cues from these conversations, said Antigone Davis, Facebook's head of global safety. Parental permission is required to sign up for the app, she said. If two children want to be friends with each other, each will have to get parental approval for contact. "It's just like setting up a play date," Davis said.
Parents have to use their Facebook email address and password to activate their child's account, but that does not log a parent into their child's device. Facebook said it has also created privacy and security measures to give parents transparency and control over their kids' online activities.
Facebook's move is the latest from a tech behemoth to show how companies are confronting the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act. The law requires companies targeting children under 13 to take extra steps to safeguard privacy and security - particularly around advertising, as children may not understand what is and is not an ad. For years, major tech firms such as Facebook complied with COPPA by not allowing those under 13 to have accounts. But with technology moving deeper into the home and many firms looking for more growth, children have become a more attractive market.
Major tech firms have recently released more products that allow children to engage within the limits of the privacy law - and that reach more of the country's approximately 50 million children under the age of 13 in the process. Google in March introduced Family Link, which allows parents to set up kid-friendly Google accounts for children under 13. Amazon has also added kid-focused "skills" to its Echo smart speakers, which require a parent's permission to activate.
(Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos is the owner of The Washington Post.)
Facebook's expansion into this market raised some alarm bells. "We appreciate that for now, the product is ad-free and appears designed to put parents in control. But why should parents simply trust that Facebook is acting in the best interest of kids?" said Jim Steyer, executive director of Common Sense Media, in a statement.
Facebook has been careful to comply with the law, said Kathryn Montgomery, a communications professor at American University and one of the main advocates who helped get COPPA passed. She first heard of Facebook's interest in children 5 or 6 years ago and urged it not to create a full social network for children. With Messenger Kids, she said, Facebook has thought through what's appropriate for kids. But, she warned, many products that start as noncommercial can change over time.
"New aspects of the product will emerge," said Montgomery, in her role as a senior consultant for the Center for Digital Democracy. "I think we're at an interesting moment, and there are a lot of moves into that marketplace."
When it comes to ads, Facebook said it will also not use data from Messenger Kids for Facebook ads. Parents shouldn't, for example, see an ad for a toy on Facebook because their child talked about it on Messenger Kids. Davis said that if a parent decides to delete a child's account, Facebook will also delete any data from its own servers.
Safety also remains a major question for any online kids product. Facebook's safeguards have made it more difficult for strangers to contact a child, they said. But that safety depends on the fact that kids won't know their parents' Facebook passwords.
The app launches on Apple's App Store first. Facebook plans to release Android and Amazon versions next year. The company has no plans to release a similar kids-only platform for its other main social network, Instagram.
Parents may worry about exposing their young children to digital services, but Facebook has taken steps to make sure they can maintain control, said Larry Magid, chief executive of the nonprofit ConnectSafely, one of many organizations Facebook briefed on the product ahead of its launch. A recent study from Common Sense Media found that parents are more skeptical of the benefits of social media for their children then they are of smartphones or even wearable devices. Magid said it may be more realistic to encourage companies to create safer, more limited and legally compliant services as a sort of "training wheels" version of more mainstream social media.
"The reality is that kids are going to go use apps if they're under 13," he said. "The question becomes: Do we simply ban them and fight a losing fight?"