Messenger gets down with the kids

This week, Facebook announced it was introducing Messenger Kids, a new free version of its chat app to enable under-13s to send messages and videos to friends and family members, with a library of approved drawing tools, frames, gifs, masks and stickers.

My first reaction was OK, this is interesting: it’s more fun than WhatsApp and less unfamiliar and unfathomable for us ancient parents than Snapchat. It also gives parents more control than either, because it’s run via the parent’s Facebook account with strict parental controls including approving contacts. Facebook also promises no in-app purchases and safety filters.

It’s definitely a hot topic for us. This summer we gave our daughter her first phone for her eleventh birthday, just before she started secondary school. The main reason is that for the first time she’s out in the world by herself, walking to and from school, so she WhatsApps me when she gets there, and when she’s leaving, and when she’s home. This is pretty standard round here: all her friends also had phones before they started big school.

What isn’t standard is the approach of us parents to our pre-teens’ permitted use of social media and messaging. Some say texts only, no WhatsApp. Some say definitely no Instagram, even if it’s a private account. And most of us say no Snapchat, because we don’t really get it. Our approach to our kids’ use of their smartphones seems to be largely parallel to our own: those of us who are active on social media and always messaging seem more permissive, while those who are not fans themselves are understandably more cautious.

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This is the thing, though: our kids already live in a social and digital-first world. They are probably messaging, social gaming and sharing anyway. YouTube is the first place they go with their ‘how to…’ questions, followed by Siri or Alexa, followed by Google, and then and only then they might ask their exhausted husks of parents for advice.

The idea of watching a TV show ‘when it’s on’ is largely alien unless there is an adult in the room who wants to watch Strictly on a Saturday night. Otherwise, they flick between Netflix, Amazon Prime and catch-up TV. They also second-screen instinctively and naturally.

Our kids already live online, to a certain extent. They are true digital natives. Social media in some form will be (at least for the foreseeable – tech innovation is moving at lightning speed) an important part of their lives and the way they communicate. Most of the jobs they will end up doing don’t exist yet, but they will all require an understanding of digital and social (as well as likely fusing science/coding with art and creativity, but that’s another post).

For me, this all underlines how crucial it is that we as parents don’t have our heads in the sand. It was fine when they were little and social was newish to say you don’t get/understand/agree with/use some or all social media. Not any more. Twitter debates, keeping up with the latest memes and oversharing on Facebook may not be your thing – and what the hell is Tumblr anyway? – but if you have kids, tweens or teens in your house, the ostrich approach is not going to cut it.

You don’t have to like it, or post anything, or follow or be friends with that weird ginger kid you were at school with 30 years ago (this is me, obvs), but we do all have to be at least vaguely familiar with the places our kids are hanging out.

Imagine a scenario where you discover after much probing of a tearful, withdrawn, anxious or “playing up” child that they are the subject of (or even involved in) online bullying or trolling. Imagine not knowing the first thing about how to change privacy settings, lock down an account, report or block people.

Or see the recent example of YouTube Kids, where parents who had assumed it was a safe space online were shocked to find that some of the content was completely inappropriate. It has to come back to us to take our share of responsibility, to keep an eye on things and make them better, in the end.

My concern has always been that if my kids even got a sniff that this was unfamiliar or scary territory for me, they might not even tell me they’re uncomfortable with something that’s going on, because they’d think I would panic and throw their phone down a well. As it happens, I really, really love social media (it’s literally part of my job) but there are gaps in even my understanding of how its youngest users behave.

Schools and NGOs have woken up and are now starting to do a great job together to educate children from Year 3 (seven year olds) upwards now, on subjects such as sexting, sharing intimate pictures (see this video from the NSPCC) and online bullying, which many adults might find it difficult to broach or communicate age-appropriate messages about.

But much as I am a fan of social media, I can see there’s a potential dark side to the introduction of Messenger Kids: Facebook doesn’t do anything from the goodness of its heart. It’s not a social enterprise, it’s commercial. It’s not actually launching the app extension to make life easy or reassuring for parents.

It’s getting kids in early, below the current requirement for them to be 13 before they have their own Facebook account, and once they are in, they’re betting many will transfer to being full users when they are older. Facebook needs new, young members to keep attracting advertising from brands who want to reach young people, and it’s struggling with the demographics: data from January this year suggests that only 3% of Facebook users are under 18, and only 18% are between 18 and 24.

Younger Millennials and Gen Z kids see Facebook as where their parents and grandparents hang out online, not as being for them, so getting grown-ups to introduce even younger kids to FB via Messenger (because it’s the platform that’s familiar to more of them) could be seen as smart business planning at best and appallingly cynical at worst.

The other factor here, of course, is the ongoing messy reveal of the extent to which Facebook is and was a channel (whether knowingly or unwittingly or in some moral grey area) for interference from Russia and extremist groups and media outlets, providing a platform for fake news and scaremongering that may have influenced Trump’s election and the Brexit referendum. Who knows what’s going to turn up on your kids’ Messenger feed, however many filters there are in place?

I’ll ask my kids if they want to be on Messenger. I’ll happily set them up if they do (and this will likely depend on whether their friends and their friends’ parents are on board too). But the rule in our house will remain this until they are a bit older: your phone is mine, I know the password, and I can take a shufti whenever I want.

It might say Kids on the app, but even grown-ups need hand-holding on potentially perilous social platforms sometimes.

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