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Facebook debuts Messenger app for kids

For the first time, Facebook is opening up to children under age 13 with a privacy-focused app designed to neutralize child predator threats that plague youth-focused competitors like Snapchat. Rolling out today on iOS in the U.S., “Messenger Kids” lets parents download the app on their child’s phone or tablet, create a profile for them and approve friends and family with whom they can text and video chat from the main Messenger app.

Tweens don’t sign up for a Facebook account and don’t need a phone number, but can communicate with other Messenger and Messenger Kids users parents sign-off on, so younger siblings don’t get left out of the family group chat. “We’ve been working closely with the FTC so we’re lockstep with them. ‘This works’, they said,” Facebook product management director Loren Cheng tells me. “In other apps, they can contact anyone they want or be contacted by anyone,” Facebook’s head of Messenger David Marcus notes.

Here are some things you should know about the app:

  • The app allows parents have to approve a child’s contacts, and request friends on behalf of their kids from their own Facebook account.
  • Messages never disappear and can’t be deleted, so parents can always find them on their kids’ devices.
  • Children also get to block any person they don’t want to talk to, and they can report inappropriate messages. There are special protections to block abusive content from appearing in the app.

It’s important to understand that kids under 13 still can’t sign up for a Facebook account. Instead, parents download the Messenger Kids app to a child’s iPhone or iPad (Android coming soon). Once the parent has authenticated it with their own account, they set up a mini-profile with their kid’s name and photo. Then, using the Messenger Kids bookmark in the main Facebook app, parents can approve anyone who is friends with them as a contact for their kid, like aunts and uncles or godparents. Messenger Kids is interoperable with the main Messenger app, so adults don’t actually have to download the Kids app.

Features include including specially chosen GIFs, stickers, masks, and frames, as well as drawing tools.

Antigone Davis, Facebook’s Public Policy Director, Global Head of Safety explained in a note that the decision behind the Messenger Kids app is the fact that children are using technology at a younger age but not those that are age appropriate.

Davis said while children expressed a desire to use social media to have fun, all of their research shows one consistent theme: parents want to know they’re in control.

“They want a level of control over their kids’ digital world that is similar to the level they have in the real world. Just as they want to know whose house their child will be visiting for a playdate, they want to know who their child is connecting with online. And just as they want to say “lights out” at night, they also want to be able to say “phones off.””

Messenger Kids is rolling out in the US initially.

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