Child campaigners to Zuckerberg: scrap Messenger Kids


More than 21,000 child health advocates are petitioning Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg to “pull the plug” on the company’s Messenger Kids app aimed at under 13s, warning of the “addictive power of social media”.

In an open letter and petition led by two groups, the Campaign for Commercial Free Childhood (CCFC) and MomsRising, the campaigners urged Zuckerberg to use his “enormous reach and influence to promote children’s wellbeing.”

“Please do not target kids. Research shows that excessive social media use is already harming adolescents and teens,” the letter says. “Younger children are even less equipped to deal with the interpersonal challenges and addictive power of social media. Kids need time and space to experience the physical world and develop healthy face-to-face relationships.”

Among the 21,000 signatories are educators, health professionals, parents and caregivers. The campaign says that these are “people who see the impacts of technology and social media on children every day” and that they are “distressed about the impacts of technology and social media on the wellbeing of  children and families”.

The standalone Messenger Kids app was launched in December with strict parental controls including contact approvals and safety filters to prevent children sharing inappropriate material. Facebook says that data collected from it will not be used for advertising purposes and the app contains no ads.

But the launch of the app was attacked by commentators and British health secretary Jeremy Hunt, who said the firm should “stay away from my kids”. The Boston-based CCFC sent a letter to Zuckerberg signed by 110 child health advocates in January warning of the dangers of the app.
Since then Zuckerberg has been grilled about Messenger Kids while testifying before the US Congress in April.

“The harm is real,” said Micah Resnick, one of the signatories of the petition, a paediatrician from New York. “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.”

“Social media is already damaging the emotional/social growth of children. Do not lower the age to younger children, who are already more impressionable, and do not have the cognitive maturity to differentiate social messages,” said Jamie Greene, a psychologist from Mt Kisco in New York. Facebook says that Messenger Kids was developed with the help of online safety experts including the National PTA and Blue Star Families, and that it is fully complaint with US Children’s Online Privacy and Protection Act.

Millions of children are already on Facebook, with or without their parents’ permission, despite its terms of service barring those under 13 years old from joining. Some have seen the Messenger Kids app as a pragmatic approach to providing somewhere for those under 13 to go that is not the main Facebook social network.
But the petition adds to the growing chorus of discontent directed towards the impact of social media, and in particular Facebook, on society and the young.

Industry insiders including former Facebook president Sean Parker, SalesForce CEO Marc Benioff and Apple chief executive Tim Cook have all recently expressed concerns over the use of social media by children.

A Facebook spokesperson said: “Messenger Kids was built from the ground up with input from families, safety experts and child development advocates. It’s why today thousands of families in the US use the app to stay in touch in a safe environment, where parents have complete control of their child’s contacts and there are no ads or in-app purchases.   

“We’re going to keep working to make this app better for families, and we appreciate their feedback.”

Samuel Gibbs, 25/05/2018