Facebook’s new messaging app deepens debate over kids’ social-media use

 In U.S.

Facebook has branched out into products aimed specifically at children. (Philippe Wojazer/Reuters)

Facebook now has a messaging app for kids, its first product aimed at young children, putting the social network at the heart of the debate about how and when children should start their online lives.

The app, called Messenger Kids, allows users under the age of 13 to send texts, videos and photos; they can draw on the pictures they send and add stickers. The app, which launches Monday in the United States, gives the company access to a new market whose age prohibits them from using the firm’s main social network. Unlike with its full social network, the data collection will be limited, Facebook said, and children will need their parents’ permission to use it.

Messenger Kids was designed after consultation with hundreds of parents and several children’s advocates, such as the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the social network said. The company took many cues from these conversations, said Antigone Davis, Facebook’s head of global safety. Parental permission is required to sign up for the app, she said. If two children want to be friends with each other, each will have to get parental approval for contact. “It’s just like setting up a play date,” Davis said.

Facebook’s move is the latest from a tech behemoth that show how companies are grappling with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. The law requires companies targeting children under 13 to take extra steps to safeguard privacy and security — particularly around advertising, as children may not understand what is and is not an ad. For years, major tech firms such as Facebook complied with COPPA by not allowing those under 13 to have accounts. But with technology moving deeper into the home and many firms looking for more growth, children have become a more attractive market.

“It’s a very lucrative market; companies want to capture these people, these children, so they can keep them throughout their lives,” said Kathryn Montgomery, a communications professor at American University and one of the main advocates who helped get COPPA passed.

Several major tech firms have recently released products that allow younger children to use their services within the limits of the kids’ privacy law — and reach more of the country’s 48.8 million children under the age of 13 in the process. Google in March introduced “Family Link,” which allowed parents to set up kid-friendly Google Accounts. Amazon has also added kid-focused “skills” to its Echo smart speakers, which require a parent’s permission to activate.

(Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos is the owner of The Washington Post.)

Davis said that Facebook spoke with the Federal Trade Commission to ensure that the app is compliant with COPPA. The FTC did not respond to a request for comment.

Analysts say that messaging apps give Facebook a chance to tap into a younger generation that they have been losing; earlier this year, the company bought the popular teen messaging app tbh.  When Facebook asked parents about launching a kids’ app, many told the company that they did not want a full social network, but had more interest in a communications tool, the company said.

Facebook said that Messenger Kids will have no ads. It will also not use data from Messenger Kids for Facebook ads. (Parents shouldn’t, for example, see an ad for a toy on Facebook because their child talked about it on Messenger Kids.) The firm said no data from Messenger Kids will be fed to the main social network, nor will their information automatically port to other Facebook products when they turn 13, the company said.

The new app doesn’t create an account for kids; parents are asked to provide only their child’s name. Parents have to use their Facebook email address and password to activate their child’s account, but that does not log a parent into their child’s device. However, per the app’s privacy policy, Facebook also collects information on the content of messages. It also reserves the right to share information with other firms as necessary — such as customer service providers or companies that can help it analyze how the app is being used.

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