Strictly speaking, only those aged 13 and over are allowed to use Facebook. But the prevention methods are trivial, meaning more than 20 million under-13-year-olds are thought to be using the network.
So on Monday, Facebook launched its first app tailored for young users. It’s a ringfenced network that needs parental approval before use, and will not – the company has promised – be used to feed data for advertising.
Messenger Kids is a simplified, locked-down version of the messaging app Facebook today offers those over 13.
“Parents are increasingly allowing their children to use tablets and smartphones, but often have questions and concerns about how their kids use them and which apps are appropriate,” said Loren Cheng, product manager for Messenger Kids.
“So when we heard about the need for better apps directly from parents during research and conversations with parents, we knew we needed to develop it alongside the people who were going to use it, as well as experts who could help guide our thinking.”
If two children want to be friends on Messenger Kids, that friendship has to be approved by a parent for each child. Once confirmed to be safe, friends can do live video chat and send pictures and text to each other.
There will also be “a library of kid-appropriate and specially chosen GIFs, frames, stickers, masks and drawing tools lets them decorate content and express their personalities”.
Approved adults can also contact children through the app – although they will get their messages through the normal Facebook Messenger app.
Messenger Kids will of course collect data: the child’s name, the content of the messages, and typical usage reports for how the app is used.
Facebook will share that information with third parties, which must have data protection policies that comply with Coppa, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act in the US.
Facebook has promised the data will not be used in any way to power the “grown up” Facebook.
That’s important – the obvious commercial benefit to this new app might be to target ads to parents based on what their kids are talking about. Or use what was discussed in Messenger Kids to target ads at teens as they graduate into over-13 Facebook.
Neither of those things would happen, Facebook said. The app doesn’t know specifically how old the children signing up are, so users will not be prompted to move onto Facebook when they are old enough.
If a child does decide to join full Facebook, it will be a brand new account with no data carried over from what was said on Messenger Kids.
Having youngsters graduate onto Facebook proper is of key strategic importance for the company as it seeks to make sure it is the social network of choice for the next generation of users.
If it can capture the attention of 6 to 12-year-olds before Snapchat (or some other competitor) can, then chances are those same kids will naturally progress into using Facebook as teenagers and young adults. It is this demographic causing them the most headaches right now. (Courtesy BBC)