Facebook ‘Messenger Kids’ lets under-13s chat with whom parents approve

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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.

Special proactive detection safety filters prevent children from sharing nudity, sexual content or violence, while a dedicated support team will respond quickly to reported or flagged content. Facebook even manually sifted Giphy to build a kid-friendly version of the GIF-sharing engine. And with childish augmented reality masks and stickers, video calls with grandma could be a lot more fun and a lot less silent or awkward.

Facebook won’t be directly monetizing Messenger Kids, automatically migrating kids to real accounts when they turn 13 or collecting data so that it complies with Children’s Online Privacy Protections Act (COPPA) law. But the app could prime kids to become lifelong Facebook users, and lock their families deeply into the platform where they’ll see ads.

“When you think about things at scale that we do to get people to care more about Messenger, this is one that addresses a real need for parents,” say Facebook’s head of Messenger David Marcus. “But the side effect will be that they use Messenger more and create family groups.” Marcus tells me he’s excited about getting his 8-year-old into the family chat alongside his 14- and 17-year-old children.

How Messenger Kids works

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.

Kids still can’t be found through Facebook search, which protects their privacy. So if a child wants to be able to chat with one of their classmates, their parent must first friend that kid’s parent, and then will see the option to approve that adult’s child as a contact for their own kid. This is by far the most clumsy part of Messenger Kids, and something Facebook might be able to improve with a way for Messenger Kids to let children perhaps photograph a QR code on their playmate’s app to request that their parents connect.

When children open the Messenger Kids app, they’ll see a color-customizable home screen with big tiles representing their existing chat threads and approved contacts, with their last message and the last time they were online. From there, kids can dive instantly into a video chat or text thread with their contacts. No message content is collected for ad targeting (same as Messenger), and there’s no in-app purchases to worry about. Kids can block and unblock their parent-approved contacts.

Facebook hired a special team to develop kid-friendly creative tools, from fidget spinner and dinosaur AR masks to crayon-style stickers. “Video calls become so much more playful with AR,” says Marcus. Sometimes after 5 or 10 minutes it’s really hard to have a sustained conversation with a 7-year-old,” but kids can joke around with Grampa using the selfie filters when they run out of run-on stories to tell them.

Messenger features like location sharing and payments have been stripped out, while the Kids version of Giphy won’t let you search for things like “sex.” Facebook actually manually selected a set of GIFs that kids can use rather than relying on a third-party startup to tag things well enough. Still, a reporting interface written specifically for kids lets them flag anything sketchy to a dedicated support team working 24/7.

One thing that might surprise some people is that there’s no way for parents to secretly spy on what their kids are saying in their chats. Instead, parents have to ask to look at their kids’ screen, which Chung says is a more common behavior pattern. The exception is that if kids report a piece of objectionable content, their parents will be notified but still not shown the content in their own app.

In June, The Information reported Facebook was working on an app for teens called Talk, though that’s a bit different than this pre-teen Messenger Kids app.

While Facebook said in the briefing that the app was designed for kids age 6 to 12, younger kids are allowed on, too. When children turn 13, they won’t instantly have their Messenger Kids profiles turned into real Facebook profiles, nor will they get kicked off Messenger Kids. They’ll still have to build a traditional Facebook account from scratch when they’re ready.

Move slow and research things

Before Facebook wrote any code or drew any designs for the app, it says it started research 18 months ago to find out what kids and parents wanted out of a potential product. It also worked with the National Parent Teacher Association for safety insights and Blue Star Families from the military who have to stay in touch during long deployments.

It found that kids had the right hardware but the wrong software; 93 percent of 6-12-year-olds in the U.S. have access to tablets or smartphones, while 66 percent have their own device, and three out of every five parents surveyed said their kids under 13 use messaging apps, social media or both. But these apps weren’t built for children’s privacy, and instead allow adult strangers to contact or follow kids. Youth favorite Snapchat has reportedly been used by predators to groom kids for sexual exploitation, with authorities saying it’s tough to track perverts because messages disappear.

Most apps say that kids have to be at least 13, but there’s nothing to stop younger children from signing up. That’s true on Facebook too, and it could do more to prevent tweens from signing up. But at least parents have grown to understand Facebook. On Snapchat, where ephemerality can cover evidence of inappropriate contact, or Musical.ly, where kids dance provocatively in front of huge audiences, dangers mount and parents are often clueless.

That’s why it was smart that Facebook tasked Cheng with leading the project. He’d spent the past few years on the “tough experiences” team that handles fake accounts, violent content, sexual exploitation, self-harm and counter-terrorism. He’s used to thinking about worst-case scenarios. Facebook built a whole portal at MessengerKids.com with more information for parents.

Facebook is trying to cross every T and dot every I when it comes to safety with this new product. It would be reckless to invite kids onto a chat app otherwise. Still, it doesn’t have the best track record on unintended consequences, and if it screws this up, the damage and backlash will be massive.

The launch could be a sign that Facebook is growing up. With Facebook almost 14 years old itself, children not yet born when it launched are now allowed on its main app. CEO Mark Zuckerberg just had two kids. So did his lieutenants Chris Cox, CPO, and Andrew Bosworth, head of hardware. It’s hard to think about connecting the world if your products can’t connect your own family.

“When I was in my mid-twenties, you never think you’re going to be gone, ever,” Marcus admits. Now 33, “[Zuckerberg] has been thinking a lot about the future he wants to leave behind for his kids.” Today his company is laying the foundation for an ageless social network.