As of late, Facebook’s popular Messenger Kids app is touted to pose risks to the health and development of kids. Consequently, the socially conscious groups such as child advocates, civil society groups, and Medical experts have written an open letter signed by hundreds of people, wanting Facebook to do away with its Messenger software.
Headed by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, 19 groups along with Common Sense Media and Public Citizen have penned and undersigned a letter to be sent to the Founder Mark Zuckerberg on Tuesday. This step underlines the rising tide of critics vociferously voicing their critique of the negative impact of early adoption of digital technology, as part of the larger wave of detractors of the increasing influence of Silicon Valley.
The crux of the argument of the signatories’ was based on the children’s inability to understand the concepts of online relationships, privacy and appropriateness of the content to be exchanged as texts and multimedia i.e. pictures and videos.
Mentioning the examples of research that outlines a link between higher rates of depression among teenagers and their social media use, the letter harps on the point of Facebook’s social responsibility towards preschool and school-going children that should not let them access Messenger app for their own good.
To add to this, the increased screen time over social media usage would hamper their primary life skills such as gauging and understanding human emotion, delaying satisfaction and interacting with the real world and not the virtual world of social media. So, the letter implored Zuckerberg to discontinue the app on Facebook for the kids.
We worked to create Messenger Kids with an advisory committee of parenting and developmental experts, as well as with families themselves and in partnership with National PTA. We continue to be focused on making Messenger Kids the best experience it can be for families. - Antigone Davis, Facebook’s global Head of Safety
Defending Messenger Kids, Facebook claimed that it allows no pop-up ads and the parents using the app said that the app helped them keep in touch with their kids when they were away from them. The launch of the Messenger Kids in 2017 has spurred a debate over the use of social media by kids since then.
The App enables kids below 13 years to connect to their dear ones through text and video chats, both in groups and individually. Parental approval is mandatory for both the sign-up and a new addition to the app’s contact list. For two children to connect to each other, the mutual approval of their parents is a must. The home screen displays the online contacts, and also has a "library of kid-appropriate and specially chosen GIFs, frames, stickers, masks and drawing tools lets them decorate content and express their personalities.”, as stated by Facebook.
With this app, Facebook forays into tapping a new market base of the kids who cannot access its main social network due to their age, thereby expanding its consumer base to all age groups. Messenger Kids has been strategically marketed as a safer form of social media constantly under parental surveillance.
But, for many years, major tech companies have respected child privacy laws by keeping kids below 13 years out of their services and their consumer domain. But Facebook’s Messenger Kids breaks through this business protocol, keen to tap and expand the market for children as opportunities for the company’s growth.
Counteracting Antigone’s point, Josh Golin, the Executive Director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood who organized the letter, while acknowledging the popularity of the app, stated that "We are at a pivotal moment, and the tech companies need to decide if they are going to act in a way that is more ethical and more responsive to the needs of children and families, or are they going to continue to pursue profits at the expense of children's well-being?"
He pointed out that kids do not need social media to account to keep in touch with their relatives around the world, encouraging one-on-one personal and healthier communication between them.
The anti-Messenger Kids stance was triggered by the high-profile criticism of a Silicon Valley giant. Two major Apple investors called the Jana Partners and the California State Teachers Retirement System had criticized Apple’s lack of effective safeguards in its devices that caused long-term physical and mental harm to the unsuspecting children, citing studies that linked social media use with health issues such as cellphone overuse and addiction especially among the teens.
This letter was a striking initiative as it was issued by the very shareholders of a leading cellphone company, against the negative impact of cell phone use on brain function.
The child development experts critiquing Messenger Kids are following the same track towards promoting a socially responsible digital business environment in a society that cannot do without cellphones today. Golin also highlighted the personal struggles of the families caught in this situation. "It’s not just the research - so many parents see it. They see what a battle it has become. To deny that these devices monopolize our attention and are designed in a way that interferes with human relationships, I think it's irrefutable at this point."
As children spend more and more time on digital devices, they lose the healthy capacities to cultivate moments of quiet and solitude that are so crucial for developing empathy and healthy relationships. -Dr Sherry Turkle, Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT, and Author of the book Reclaiming Conversation.
Although Facebook did not immediately comment on the rising voices of discontent about its Messenger Kids, industry insiders including former Facebook President Sean Parker, SalesForce CEO Marc Benioff, Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook have all recently expressed their worries and concerns over the overuse of social media by children.
All the Facebook fans hope that the social network giant will act responsibly on this matter and allow the kids and children to connect with each other on their own will, without the push of an unnecessary and rather harmful social media account.