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 US, “Messenger Kids” lets parents download the app on their child’s phone or tablet, create a profile for them, and approve friends and family who they can text and video chat with 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 life-long 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 in 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 to protect 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 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.
Facebook hired a special team to develop kid-friendly creative tools, from fidget spinner and dinosaur AR masks to crayon-style stickers. 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.
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.
Facebook has built a whole portal at MessengerKids.com with more information for parents. Most apps say that kids have to be at least 13, but there’s nothing to stop younger children from signing up. With kids favorite Snapchat reportedly being used by predators to groom kids for sexual exploitation, Facebook is trying to cross every T and dot every I when it comes to safety with this new app. It would be reckless to invite kids onto a chat app otherwise.
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 you products can’t connect your own family. “[Zuckerberg] has been thinking a lot of about the future he wants to leave behind for his kids” says Marcus. Today his company is laying the foundation for an ageless social network.