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How Messenger Kids takes more from families than it gives them

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 without 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 decent 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 army waiting to attack. If you don’t grab those 6-year-old eyeballs, someone else surely 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. As my colleague Nick Statt wrote yesterday, Messenger Kids offers video and text chat to children, plus controls to restrict who they can talk to. As you would find elsewhere, the app will have plenty of masks, filters, GIFs, stickers, and other shiny objects.

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 parents what messaging services their young children used most often. Common replies 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’s 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 for the company 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, other than to say it would not include ads. 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 by adding contacts. Notably, the parent is asked to provide their child’s real name. Facebook says it has no plans to turn these shadow accounts into full-fledged Facebook profiles. And yet the data it collects could be useful for ad targeting elsewhere on the service. And should Facebook amass hundreds of millions of underage users, the company will have every incentive to offer one-click exporting of these accounts to real ones on the day the child turns 13.

It didn’t have to be this way. Facebook asks parents to provide their children’s real names, when they could just as easily have asked the parent to pick a nickname, or a symbol, or a picture of a cartoon bear. It could have let parents create a “guest” account inside their profiles with restricted access to their contacts. Instead it acted true to its roots — as a company that maps out the connections between people at the highest resolution possible. (A spokeswoman tells me that in a departure from the company’s official policy, parents are “encouraged” but not required to use their child’s real names.)

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 can only offer a version of the text and video chat they would find elsewhere. But its pitch 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. (The National PTA is invoked in its blog post, trailed by a disclaimer that the National PTA does not actually endorse any commercial products.) 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 key lesson of the past year is that our usage of 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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