After heated criticism of Facebook’s role in disseminating “fake news,” Mark Zuckerberg has declared that he wants to make the social media company “good for people's well-being.”
It’s the height of hypocrisy, then, that the company has launched Messenger Kids, its first-ever app for children under the age of 13.
The messaging app “makes it easier for kids to safely video chat and message with family and friends when they can’t be together in person,” the company said in a press release. Although the app “lives on kids’ tablets or smartphones,” it can be controlled from a parent’s Facebook account.
The benefits of this product to Facebook are clear. Instilling brand loyalty in young users is a way to ensure that they continue to use the social network as teenagers and adults. Lifetime brand loyalty is usually the goal when any company begins targeting children.
What’s also clear is how bad the app could be for children.
Teens who spend six to nine hours a week on social media are more likely to report being unhappy than kids who spend less time on social media, while kids who spend more time with friends in person are more likely to report being happy. For pre-teen girls in particular, time on social media is linked with idealizing thinness and discontent with their own bodies.
Facebook has pitched Messenger Kids as a way of giving parents “more control” over their kids’ online experience. But this is dubious. As early as 2011, 7.5 million children under the age of 13 were lying about how old they were to get on Facebook, according to Consumer Reports. Those kids aren’t going to now switch to Messenger Kids. Rather, the app is more likely to attract new, even younger users who don’t already have Facebook accounts, leading to a net increase in the number of young children on social media.
The “kids are already doing it” logic is a tired rationale for allowing companies to market to children. This reasoning has been used explicitly by some companies, including BabyFirstTV, to justify a 24-hour TV channel for infants, and YouTube, in launching YouTube Kids.
Although Facebook claims that Messenger Kids is safe and ad-free, there’s no guarantee the app will stay that way. And the app itself is, of course, marketing the Facebook brand to children.
One feature that makes social media problematic for teenagers is also what makes it so compelling. Facebook users of any age curate what they do and don’t post about themselves. Users build virtual personae that may or may not accurately reflect their actual lives. That can be creative and fun, but it also engenders envy. For teens, this can make an already difficult phase even more difficult. Teens who are grappling with hormones, body changes, peer pressure and a search for identity inevitably compare themselves to their online friends. Many girls — and adult women — alter their selfies before they post them.
Social media is already correlated to teenage unhappiness. There’s no reason to believe it will be less harmful for younger children.
Facebook made a point to say that it worked with “experts” to shape Messenger Kids. But according to a recent investigation by Wired, seven of the 13 experts had financial ties to Facebook. By contrast, more than 100 public health advocates, educators, former tech executives and others, myself included, have objected to Messenger Kids in a letter sent directly to Zuckerberg.
Concerns about the effects of screen technology on children — including the marketing that the technology delivers so well — have for too long been the purview of parents and a relatively small number of health professionals, educators and child development specialists. But now critiques are emerging from within the tech industry.
Two of Apple’s major investors are publicly urging the company to help parents reduce children’s screen time. A group of former tech insiders and CEOs recently founded the Center for Humane Technology, an organization dedicated to “realigning technology with humanity’s best interests.” Among its concerns: “The race to keep children’s attention trains them to replace their self-worth with likes, encourages comparison with others, and creates the constant illusion of missing out.”
Messenger Kids is nothing if not a way for Facebook to grab the attention of children even earlier.
Zuckerberg controls the majority of Facebook’s voting shares. He could end Messenger Kids instantly — and he should. Facebook may need children, but there’s no way children need Facebook.
Susan Linn is a psychologist, a lecturer on psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the author of "Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood."