Facebook have recently introduced its latest installment - Messenger Kids. Children aged from 6 to 12, can now be softly and cautiously lured into the Facebook network, right under the noses of their parents. Facebook is once again testing the boundaries of Social Networking and many are justifiably sceptical about their motifs. The Social Networking giant has announced the release with the their usual self proclaimed heroism, boasting how committed they are to the protection of children and touting that Messenger Kids has been introduced because 'it is what parents want'!
Facebook have been successful in getting the App past the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). This legislation in the USA, governs how and when social media organisations can collect the information of children under the age of 13. In the past, most networks have avoided targeting this age group, due to the cost and effort involved in complying with the Act. With recent alterations to the legislation, it seemed it was only a matter of time before someone gave it a red hot crack. And of course, it had to be Facebook!
The introduction of Messenger Kids appears to be a bold step into the very risky area of pre-teen interaction. It is a slap in the face of many professionals around the world who are trying to get young kids off their devices. But for me, it wreaks of desperation to get back what Facebook has been missing for a number of years now, namely younger kids. Over the past 6 years in Australia, there has been a steep decline in children between the ages of 10 to 16 using Facebook. Of course, children from 10 to 12 should not be using the network, as it has a 13 year age limit. However, my research includes kids aged from 10 to 12 for one very simple reason - They were using Facebook in massive numbers.
From 2012 to 2017, I presented to over 320 thousand students in Australia. Between 2012 to 2015, the number of kids from 10 to 12 years of age who were using the network, rose from approximately 15% to 85%. From 2015 to today, those numbers have dropped dramatically from 85% to a dismal 6% on average. These numbers clearly reflect that Facebook has lost the current younger generation of social networking users. In addition to primary age students, from 2012 to 2017, there was a similarly significant rise and fall in the number of high school students from Year 7 to Year 9 (12 to 15 years), using Facebook. The numbers going from an average of 85% in 2012 to approximately 15% in 2017.
What is even more noteworthy is the fact that adults over the age of 35 have pushed to Facebook in massive numbers over the past 6 years. Facebook is therefore in danger of becoming the play ground of ranting adults with political speech, Dad jokes and boring banter. Hardly where kids will want to hang out! Facebooks' fear of losing users is constant, especially those aged from 13 to 21. This was reflected clearly in the acquisition of Instagram in 2012. That network had gained massive momentum in its first 12 months, so it was snapped up nice and early by Facebook for a cool billion.
But there was soon to be a new rival that was not going to be pushed around or bullied as easily. Snapchat is the next giant on the block and our younger kids from 10 to 12 (again breaching T's & C's), are pushing to it in massive numbers. Facebooks' fierce rivalry and bitterness toward Snapchat over the past few years, has gained regular criticism from many sectors as it tries to 'copycat' and outdo its rapidly rising competitor. More crucially, Snapchat is seeing the same levels of rise with the younger kids that Facebook had in the earlier years. Facebook is desperate to get the kiddies back. Reluctantly, they have conceded defeat in regard to the current crop of 10 to 16 year olds. So instead, they have looked to the future, by creating Messenger Kids!
Many social media commentators or self proclaimed 'cyber safety experts', who have jumped into bed with Facebook, are touting how perfect Messenger Kids is. In regard to the design, it does actually work quite well and at least confines a child within the App, via the parents' (or hosts) Facebook account. It is cute, easy to use and kids from 6 to 10 will like it. But, is it really as straight forward as that? Messenger Kids will work well for parents who have great control over the internet and device use of their children. It is a great little 'toy', that will give kids from 6 to 9 years of age the chance to have some face to face fun with their mates and relatives. But it can still be open to manipulation, especially if some parents simply click and allow without truly investigating who they are permitting their kids to chat with.
The fact that comments are being made through parental accounts in no way will guarantee a 6 year old will not be exposed to cyber bullying, abuse or ridicule, especially with the live video feature. Sure, a parent can block or report after the fact, but it's too late! The damage may have already been done. But for me it is not so much the App itself, but the fact that Messenger Kids is run by the worlds leading Social Networking organisation. For children as young as 6 years of age to be coaxed into that environment is reckless and goes against what so many parents want for their children.
The vast majority of parents, educators and psychologists globally are trying to get young children off devices and away from screen time. The parents of kids from 8 to 10 years of age soon realise the pressure such networks will impose on them. It won't stop until their kids are close to finishing high school. But now, once again, in the guise of parent saviour and child protector, Facebook have flown in like Superman with a new App which targets kids that are even younger. All the while, the network will be capturing the location, identifying key words and gathering information and habits on the next generation of users. Not to help protect them, but for the sole purpose of building a better environment so they can keep them.
It is blatantly transparent and I am glad I am not the only one calling them out on it.