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Facebook comes for the children

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In 1998, as the internet began to spread across the country, Congress passed the Children's Online Pr
 
December 4 · Issue #39 · View online
The Interface
In 1998, as the internet began to spread across the country, Congress passed the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA. Among the act’s most consequential provisions was a rule that children under the age of 13 could not give out their personal information with a parent’s permission. Because of the cost of complying with that law, most internet companies have simply forbidden anyone younger than 13 from signing up.
But in practice, a healthy number of children under 13 wind up using online services anyway. And if you work at a big, rich social network whose existence is regularly threatened by the emergence of new networks popular with such humans, all those under-13s may begin to look like an attack vector. If you don’t grab the 6-year-old eyeballs, someone else will. 
And so here’s Messenger Kids, a new chat app for 6- to 12-year-olds that will soon arrive in the iOS App Store: 
Messenger Kids is primarily designed to offer video and text chat along with the types of playful masks and filters, originally popularized by Snapchat, that are now prevalent across Facebook’s many messaging products. Facebook says there is a “library of kid-appropriate and specially chosen GIFs, frames, stickers, masks and drawing tools lets them decorate content and express their personalities.” The app also gives parents the ability to control a child’s contact list, while a more spartan home screen shows pre-approved friends that are online and preexisting one-on-one chats and group threads.
Facebook presented Messenger Kids as a gift to parents, whose children might otherwise sends messages on harder-to-monitor platforms: 
Kids told us that the primary reason they want to use social media and messaging platforms is to have fun, which means that an environment that emphasizes safety at the expense of joy and laughter will fail the customer satisfaction test — and potentially leave kids vulnerable to less controlled and more risky social environments. We believe that it’s possible to give kids a fun experience that provides more peace of mind for parents, too.
What are these risky social environments? On Twitter, I asked what messaging services young children used most often. Common answers included services from Apple (iMessage, FaceTime) and Google (Hangouts). Many parents told me their children were indeed using messaging apps from the age of 6. It is easy to see how Facebook would look at the competitive landscape and conclude that a large market for kids’ messaging apps already exists, and that it would be unwise not to participate.
And yet Messenger Kids gives me pause. Not once in the blog posts it wrote or the interviews it granted did Facebook executives describe the business purpose of Messenger Kids. It did not say how it would monetize the app. It did not describe whether parents would have access to any of the data being gathered about their families, or how that data might be used.
A child can use an iMessage account and share very little data about herself with Apple. The same holds true for Hangouts. In many cases, children are using their parents’ accounts, obscuring the data further.
On Messenger Kids, a parent creates an account for a child, establishes a familial relationship within the app, and then begins building their child’s social graph. Facebook says it has no plans to turn these mini-profiles into full-fledged Facebook profiles. And yet should it amass hundreds of millions of underage users, the company will have every incentive to offer one-click exporting of these shadow profiles to real ones on the day the child turns 13. 
Apple and Google profit off children in their own ways, of course, largely through the sale of hardware to their schools. And yet that feels, to me at least, like a fairer trade. Those companies make tools that help children learn. Facebook’s pitch, on the other hand, relies first upon scaring parents — your kids are going to text anyway, they tell us, and there might might be a child predator on the other end of the line:
We also heard some scary things, like a mom who found the online chat her 7 year-old had while playing a video game with an adult male stranger. It began with seemingly friendly questions about her son’s favorite sports teams but slowly led to questions about what he looked like, before finally pushing the boy to send a photo of himself. She was terrified.
Facebook argues that it has uniquely good intentions here, and that its app was built only after thousands of conversations with parents and a blue-ribbon panel of child development experts. In its pitch to kids to use the app, it reminds me of the mother in Mean Girls: “If you’re gonna drink, I’d rather you do it at the house.”
A core idea in this newsletter is that social media often has unintended consequences, and that those consequences often turn out to be negative. Facebook scarcely has a handle on the way its users are employing private messaging tools to spread misinformation here and abroad — and now it is turning over those tools, dressed up in primary colors, to children. 
Facebook’s success has long derived from its willingness to find the limits of our comfort around sharing, and then push right past them. Viewed in that light, building a pipeline of 6-year-old users in the name of protecting them from child predators is part of a long tradition.
And yet at a time when I’m still struggling to understand how social media is altering my own mind, I’m hesitant to recommend it to children. The benefits of Messenger Kids to Facebook are too obvious, and too little acknowledged by its creators. And the benefits to children all but elude me. 

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