PhotoA group of 100 child development experts and advocates has published an open letter urging Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to shut down the site’s new messaging app aimed at kids.

Back in December, Facebook launched the free Messenger Kids app, touting it as a safe way for kids under 13 to chat with family members and parent-approved friends.

Since parents are given control of their child’s account, Facebook asserted that Messenger Kids would be filling a “need for a messaging app that lets kids connect with people they love but also has the level of control parents want.”  

But health experts argue that younger kids aren’t ready to have their own social media accounts and say the app should be pulled.

Targeting younger children

Led by Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, the group of experts and advocates includes psychiatrists, pediatricians, educators, parenting organizations, and the children’s music singer Raffi Cavoukian.

"Messenger Kids is not responding to a need - it is creating one," the letter states. "It appeals primarily to children who otherwise would not have their own social media accounts," the letter reads. Another passage criticized Facebook for "targeting younger children with a new product."

The group says children under 13 aren’t old enough to navigate the complexities of online relationships or protect their own privacy.

“They also do not have a fully developed understanding of privacy, including what’s appropriate to share with others and who has access to their conversations, pictures, and videos,” the letter continued.

‘Gateway drug’

When the app was launched, Facebook said there were “no ads” or paid content downloads inside the app. It also assured parents that their “child’s information isn’t used for ads.”

In defense of the app, Facebook released a statement emphasizing that parents are “always in control” of their child’s activity.

"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," said Antigone Davis, Facebook’s global head of safety, in a statement to the Washington Post.

However, the company has been accused of using Messenger Kids as a ‘gateway drug’ to get kids hooked on social media at a younger age, making them more likely to use their service when they become teenagers and can be subjected to ad-targeting.  

Health effects of technology

The group says it’s “particularly irresponsible” of Facebook to launch an app geared towards preschoolers when there is growing concern about how social media use affects children’s development.

“Already, adolescents report difficulty moderating their own social media use,” they write. “Messenger Kids will exacerbate this problem, as the anticipation of friends’ responses will be a powerful incentive for children to check – and stay on – a phone or tablet.

“[T]he app’s overall impact on families and society is likely to be negative, normalizing social media use among young children and creating peer pressure for kids to sign up for their first account,” they said.

“Raising children in our new digital age is difficult enough,” they added. “We ask that you do not use Facebook’s enormous reach and influence to make it even harder. Please make a strong statement that Facebook is committed to the wellbeing of children and society by pulling the plug on Messenger Kids.”

Earlier this year, Mark Zuckerberg vowed to try to make users “happier” in 2018 by making certain changes to the site. Shutting down Messenger Kids would be a highly positive move, the group of experts contend.

“Doing better is leaving younger children alone and allowing them to develop without the pressures that come with social media use,” they said.

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