‘Facebook’s Messenger Kids app is not the problem. Parents are.’

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In an era where we all love to blame someone or something for our problems, the recent outrage directed at Facebook’s new Messenger Kids app has created a new wave of “social media is destroying young lives” stories.

But here’s a newsflash – it’s not Messenger Kids or social media in general that’s the problem. It’s the fact that parents don’t know how to help their kids manage their online interactions.

Alarmingly, a recent Australian study reported that 60 per cent of parents do not monitor the online activities of their children at all, and those that do generally rely on “set-and-forget” methods like blocking that has been proven time and again not to be effective.

So what exactly is Messenger Kids and why all the fuss?

LISTEN: Mia Freedman, Holly Wainwright and Jessie Stephens have a big problem with the Messenger Kids app. They discuss, on Mamamia Out Loud.

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Facebook has only just launched the Messenger Kids app in the US, so it’s a good opportunity for parents in Australia to do their research and check out what early users have to say before it lands here.

Messenger Kids is targeting the under-13s who are too young to set up their own Facebook account. After downloading the app parents create a profile for their child, login with their existing Facebook credentials and then can approve or request any contact their child wants to add to their account.

This gives parents a level of control in terms of who their child can chat to, but research shows that keeping kids safe online requires different approaches: technology + education = empowerment.

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Kids can then have live video chats with individuals or in a group, send photos and videos from the device they are using, and send instant messages and kid friendly GIFs, stickers, filters (like Snapchat) and emojis. Facebook also claims that all conversations are monitored and saved and that kids are able to report inappropriate behaviour, with notifications sent to parent Facebook accounts. The app also provides pop-up feedback and dedicated moderation of content, which includes safety filters that prevent kids from sending or receiving sexually explicit images.

There are those who welcome the development of Messenger Kids. With kids going online at much earlier ages and many of the under-13 year olds already using social media services such as Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat, Messenger Kids provides a platform to prepare them for their ‘always on’ lives.

Consider this an introduction to the challenging world of social media, with some commentators claiming this Messenger Kids app targets the next generation of Facebook users who will be automatically migrated to Facebook when they turn 13. A well thought out marketing strategy!

Not surprisingly, there are also strong views opposing Messenger Kids. Potential downsides include data privacy, screen addiction and undermining the benefits of play and socialising offline.

Facebook claims in its announcement that any data collected on Messenger Kids will be ‘limited’ but parents need to be informed about what this actually means including what type of data and how will it be used or shared with third parties?

Kids on phones
Image via Getty.

Experts and researchers believe it’s more important for parents to monitor the quality of their kids’ screen activities rather than counting minutes or hours. What’s more important is to consider the content they are accessing or watching, what device they are using and most critically, is it adding value to their life? A one size model of screen time advice does not allow for a kid’s age, interests or access.

Learning to socialise and communicate in person provides the foundation for having to do the same regardless of whether there’s a screen between them or not. Social and emotional skills require empathy, respect, resilience and kindness and are not taught online, they are practised.

Messenger Kids is not a parental control tool, it’s a social media learning tool for kids and their parents where they learn to navigate the digital world together. Parents are encouraged to take the opportunity to have open conversations where family and community values can be reinforced. Ask questions such as: Why did we choose the people you can connect with? What types of messages are OK to send and which ones aren’t? When would it be better to talk in person or on the phone rather than sending a message?

There’s a fine line between protecting kids online, minimising risk and maximising opportunity and providing them with social media training wheels. It’s possible Messenger Kids may encourage family negotiation of media use and provide those teaching moments for guidance, rather than just the monitoring of their kid’s online messages.

Some kids are already using their parent’s Skype, FaceTime and Facebook Messenger accounts to have intergenerational communication with family and friends. With web apps taking over from traditional telephones, the introduction of a kid friendly messenger app into the mix helps them to develop and practise their online communication skills with approved contacts.

Messenger Kids is simple to use, encourages creativity through the use of drawing tools and masks and introduces the concepts of reporting inappropriate content or mean behaviour, which parents are informed about so that they can initiate a timely conversation with their child.

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Wangle Family Insites is an innovative new app allows parents to do this without spying on their child’s device, or breaching their privacy and trust. It enables parents to monitor device usage, capture the time spent on certain apps or gaming sites and notifies parents if an Internet threat that has been triggered, in real time. Unlike spyware, it doesn’t give access to specific content - which protects trust and encourages honest communication between parent and child.

For Australian families ‘keeping an eye’ on the evolution of Messenger Kids, it looks to be a measured way to introduce social media to younger children. Ultimately it is up to parents to determine the readiness of their child to use social media and Messenger Kids.

Robyn Treyvaud is an online safety expert and the head of education at Wangle Family Insites.

LISTEN: Mia Freedman, Holly Wainwright, and Jessie Stephens check in on how they did during 2017, and come up with a word to guide their every move in 2018.

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