In December 2017, Facebook announced their new Messenger Kids app – a messenger service designed exclusively for children ages 13 and under.
Since then, the app has received considerable criticism from several angles. First, there were concerns over Facebook’s ability to truly protect children’s data under current Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule (COPPA) regulations (and with GDPR fast approaching, how will that impact their guidelines?) Facebook has explicitly stated that the app was designed to be COPPA compliant, and that there will be no advertising on the app, nor will children’s user data be collected for commercial use.
Now, a recent letter sent by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood is urging the platform to shut down the app. The letter was signed by more than a dozen other advocacy organizations – including the ACLU of Mass., EPIC Privacy and Common Sense Media.
“Younger children are simply not ready to have social media accounts,” the letter states. “They are not old enough to navigate the complexities of online relationships, which often lead to misunderstandings and conflicts even among more mature users. They also do not have a fully developed understanding of privacy, including what’s appropriate to share with others and who has access to their conversations, pictures, and videos.”
The letter continues, stating that apps like Facebook Messenger Kids is “not responding to a need, but creating one.” The letter asserts that the use of the app will foster a reliance on social media use at a young age – something that has been attributed to a development of psychological issues like depression, and “less satisfaction with their every day lives.”
“At a time when there is mounting concern about how social media use affects adolescents’ well-being, it is particularly irresponsible to encourage children as young as preschoolers to start using a Facebook product,” the letter states.
David Marcus, Facebook’s VP of Messaging Products, defended Messenger Kids defended the app at the Upfront Summit in Los Angeles this week, following the backlash. According to TechCrunch, Marcus compared the app to more of a group chat service, rather than a social media platform.
But, is that really the case? Personally, Facebook seems very back-and-forth when it comes to truly defining who they are as a company. Back when they announced changes to their algorithm to crack down on “fake news” sites and restructure how media organizations permeated News Feeds, they advocated their stance as a social media platform, and not as a publisher. If Facebook Messenger Kids isn’t social media – then what is it?
Facebook Messenger isn’t a standalone platform – you still need to have a Facebook account to use it. Facebook Messenger Kids requires a parent to have a Facebook account to control the app on their child’s behalf. This negates the idea that it is truly standalone, which is still much more akin to Snapchat than Whatsapp.
So, how does Facebook define themselves as a company? They don’t seem to have cohesion across their brand – and maybe they need it in order to remain reputable in the eyes of the public.
Facebook has been under a lot of scrutiny for their handling of media that’s published on their platform – something that’s fostered a culture of distrust. What can Facebook do about it? I asked Dylan Collins, CEO of kidtech platform SuperAwesome.
According to Collins, Facebook Messenger Kids is indeed compliant “from a technical point of view.”
The other is “the increasingly negative brand association with many of the major tech platforms in the family environment.”
“I think, regardless of the reality, it’s hard for parents to believe that these huge companies whose sole business model is based around capturing as much personal data as possible would do anything which isn’t compatible with that agenda,” Collins said.
This recent example of public outcry underlines a glaring issue for Facebook – the way they portray themselves as a company isn’t consistent.
And as brand trust hangs in the balance, maybe they need some clarity.