Is it okay for kids to have a presence online, and to actively participate on social media with the guidance of their parents, or should being on social media be completely off bounds till they are old enough? This seems to be the ongoing debate over the recently launched Facebook Messenger Kids app.

The Messenger Kids app was launched two months ago for children under 13, with strict parental controls including contact approvals and safety filters to block inappropriate content. According to Facebook, the app is fully compliant with the US Children’s Online Privacy and Protection Act, and this makes it completely safe. But some child-health advocates are pushing back calling for its withdrawal.

In an open letter published by CCFC – Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood – on Tuesday, 30th January, over 100 child-health advocates; educators, doctors, and child health experts have asked Mark Zuckerberg “to discontinue” the app due to the danger it poses to their health.

“At a time when there is mounting concern about how social media use affects adolescents’ wellbeing, it is particularly irresponsible to encourage children as young as pre-schoolers to start using a Facebook product. Younger children are simply not ready to have social media accounts. They are not old enough to navigate the complexities of online relationships”, the letter states.

The letter also opines that Messenger Kids would likely increase the amount of time pre-school and elementary age kids spend with digital devices, further exacerbating an already established issue of screen time regulation. And more time on digital devices and social media would undermine the health, emotional development and conversational skills of children offline, all of which are crucial for developing empathy and healthy relationships.

According to Josh Golin, executive director of the CCFC, “It’s galling to see Facebook target young children at a time when evidence is mounting that excessive social media use negatively impacts kids and teens’ well-being.”

At the time of the launch two months ago, Facebook had also said it designed the app to connect children with relatives and friends through text, photos and video chat while making parents the gatekeepers. It was also explained that Messenger Kids was developed with the help of online safety experts. But as the letter rightly states, talking to family and friends over long distances doesn’t require a kid-centric app. Kids can use parents’ Facebook, Skype, or other accounts to chat with relatives. They can also just call them with a phone.

There is also the defence of the app being a pragmatic approach to steer kids from lying and creating social media accounts without their parent’s permission and guidance like millions have done. “Messenger Kids is not responding to a need, it is creating one,” the letter responds. Because the 11-and 12- year-olds who are already on other platforms including Facebook are unlikely to switch to an app that is specially designed for their age category.

As reported by The Guardian, Jenny Radesky, MD, a developmental behaviour paediatrician and media researcher has said that children under 13 find it hard to grasp concepts such as privacy and personal data. “They’re just starting to build awareness about their identity, and their role in relationships, and morality. Combine that immaturity with the problematic interactions that often happen on social media, and it could be really messy”, she said.

In the past, Facebook had vowed to do better after being confronted over issues including helping to spread fake news, helping an advertising client to target teens when they are emotionally vulnerable, and allowing advertisers discriminate based on age and ethnicity. The letter urges the firm to keep to its promise to do better by allowing younger children develop without the pressures that come with social media use because “raising children in our new digital age is difficult enough.”

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