My two 7-year-old sons are fascinated with social media, specifically, Facebook. They might not completely understand social media, but they get that it’s used to connect with people and they want to be part of that connection.
My kids don’t have smart phones and we don’t have immediate plans to change that. I suppose I could say something like, “My kids won’t have smart phones until they’re 13,” but the truth is, I don’t know that I’ll wait that long. Yes, I understand the perils of social media, but we’re becoming increasingly reliant on smart phones and social media for everyday tasks. My phone is my wallet, calculator, camera, flashlight, and a multitude of other things.
I know there are parents out there who believe that shielding their kids from social media for as long as possible is the right choice. I’m not sure I exactly agree, especially since I found myself really liking the new app from Facebook designed to safely introduce kids to online connections.
It’s called Messenger Kids and the preview just rolled out today. Messenger Kids is not a standalone app, but rather a feature within a parent’s personal Facebook account that they can use to get structured and supervised exposure to social media “on their own.” Parents have complete control, which means that we must approve our kid’s contacts before they can start chatting. So fear not! Some creepy internet person can’t just randomly start communicating with your kid through Messenger Kids.
There is no actual profile of your child floating around out there, so it’s impossible for someone to look your kids up. And with this feature, kids gain a sense of what it’s like to use social media under the guidance and supervision of strict parental control.
You have my attention, Facebook.
The Messenger Kids app is only available for Apple products right now (sorry, Android users) and is targeted to kids aged 6-11. The app allows users to chat with individuals and groups, and has all kinds of interactive bells and whistles for kids to enjoy. For example, my kids LOVE the filters. Talking to someone via Mom’s phone is cool, but talking to someone via Mom’s phone while wearing koala ears is way cooler.
“One of the things we found over and over again is that kids look at communications as play, and so we wanted to make this as playful as possible,” said Loren Cheng, Facebook’s director of product management.
Messenger Kids places a big emphasis on playfulness, with frames, masks, stickers, emoji, and sound effects. Kids can also turn into elderly versions of themselves (not too crazy about that, but it’s all in good fun) or transform themselves into babies sucking on pacifiers. A wide-open mouth feature can even turn them into an opera singer shattering glass!
Sounds fun, right?
What Messenger Kids doesn’t have is in-app purchases or ads, and no information gained through this feature will be used to create ads. As a parent, the absence of in-app purchases is a huge plus. I can walk out of the room while my kids are talking to their grandmother without worrying that they’ll click on something that’s going to cost me money later on.
Kids are also not able to delete conversations and parents have full access to everything their kids are doing and saying through the app. There are also blocking and reporting features built in and parents are immediately notified when their child blocks a contact or reports being uncomfortable. Remember, kids are only communicating with contacts you’ve already approved of, but we can never be too careful.
Whether we like it or not, social media is part of life now. It’s bittersweet to watch my kids place more and more emphasis on gaining independence, and yes, it’s a little scary when that independence extends to online activity.
But I like that Facebook is taking steps to offer kids their first user experience user under their parent’s watch. I can definitely see this as something our family will be using once it’s fully rolled out.