Experts who want to end the Facebook Messenger Kids app totally miss the point

Facebook is urged to kill Messenger Kids because it's harmful to kids, but is it any more so than other social apps?

Experts who want to end the Facebook Messenger Kids app totally miss the point

Parenting

Experts who want to end the Facebook Messenger Kids app totally miss the point

This week, about 100 childhood and mental health experts pleaded with Facebook to kill its new messenger app for kids.

Facebook said no.

The news has been trending ever since. But Messenger Kids is not the devil — at least not any more than other digital media.

Facebook touts Messenger Kids as a safer social media.

Credit: Facebook

Safer social media?

The app was rolled out in December and is similar to the Facebook Messenger app for adults, except it requires parent approval to sign up and to add new contacts, giving parents control of their kids’ experience. Kids can send videos and photos and add GIFs and stickers to messages but the app doesn’t have a news feed or advertising.

Facebook touts this as a safer social media option.

The Boston-based Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, which organized the app-ending effort, is unconvinced. Among the reasons stated in a letter sent Tuesday to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is that the app will be “the first social media platform widely used by elementary school children.”

The letter also stated:

“Messenger Kids is not responding to a need — it is creating one. It appeals primarily to children who otherwise would not have their own social media accounts.”

The problem it is creating? According to the letter, it’s younger users. The app is designed for kids under the age of 13, but the fear is that Facebook is trying to hook 6-year-olds.

The real problem is screen time

Digital media is addicting to children.

Credit: Getty Images

The problem it is really creating, though it got lost in the trending buzz to kill a social media app:

Addiction.

Digital screen time is addicting in young children.

Studies support that tweens spend up to six hours and teens nine hours daily consuming media. This study did include screen time for watching movies, reading, television and going to the movies. Parents who battle limiting screen time with their kids know this.

Facebook told USA Today it won’t shutter the app because they’ve heard from “parents around the country that Messenger Kids has helped them stay in touch with their children.”

Parents, Facebook said in an email to the newspaper, read bedtime stories to their children using the app.

Ahhh…that’s sweet.

There are apps and websites for kids everywhere

Credit: Giphy

Kids ages 0 to 8 spend 48 minutes a day on mobile devices, triple the amount they did four years ago, according to Common Sense Media.

Where to fill the rest of the time? Well, anywhere. YouTube has everything. Even PBS has apps. Then they have individual apps for the shows on their educational programming like “Daniel Tiger” and “Arthur.” There’s no end to the ways children can consume digital media.

Child development experts see social media as a far more dangerous platform than other digital forms of media, but if you’ve played tug of war with your child’s electronic devices, you know that whatever way they’re spending time online, it’s addictive. It’s hard for adults to set boundaries, harder still for children to understand the concept of “balance.”

Killing the app won’t actually kill the problem

Messenger Kids didn't change the daily struggle parents have with their kids over screen time.

Credit: Getty Images

You can kill Messenger Kids which, this group says, could undermine “children’s healthy development.” That’s one less thing parents will have to police.

But the World Wide Web is so named for a reason. The world awaits. Untold numbers of apps, channels and videos are a click away and that means parents have the impossible task of regulating a never-ending number of apps and websites their children navigate in the name of ensuring their health, well-being and safety.

Messenger Kids Facebook app

Credit: Facebook

I don’t think Facebook did anything particularly gallant nor evil with the introduction of its sandbox social media app. The battle that parents have to keep up with their kids’ digital viewing habits and curb addiction is exactly the same before the app came along as it is now. It’s a daily struggle.

The child development experts who signed their names or organizations to the letter to Mark Zuckerberg were right, however, to argue for delaying screen time, which delays the struggle:

“Encouraging kids to move their friendships online will interfere with and displace the face-to-face interactions and play that are crucial for building healthy developmental skills, including the ability to read human emotion, delay gratification, and engage with the physical world.”

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