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Facebook tool lets parents limit Messenger Kids time

A new feature called "sleep mode" allows you to set boundaries for when your kids can and can’t use the chat app.

messenger-kids

Facebook is adding a "sleep mode" feature to Messenger Kids.

Jason Cipriani/CNET

Facebook says it wants children to be able to take a time out from its Messenger Kids app.

On Friday, the company introduced "sleep mode" for its chat app designed specifically for children aged 12 and under. The new feature lets parents set parameters for when their kids can and can't use the app.

Messenger Kids, which was introduced in December, is a standalone app separate from Facebook's main social network and the regular version of Facebook Messenger. For both of those platforms, you need to be at least 13 years old to sign up. Messenger Kids doesn't have any advertisements or in-app purchases, and Facebook said it was developed in compliance with COPPA, the law that protects children's privacy online. The data also won't be used to target any ads.

This is what kids see when the app is in "sleep mode."

Facebook

The new sleep mode lets parents go into their Facebook settings and decide when to make the Messenger Kids app off-limits. For example, you could block off time in the evenings during dinner or homework time. Or you could shut it off after bedtime and reactivate it in the morning. Kids using the app will see a bar at the top of the screen with a 10-minute countdown before the app goes into sleep mode, so they can wind down conversations.

"There are times when families might want to set off time when the devices are down," Antigone Davis, Facebook's global head of safety, said in an interview Thursday. "It seemed an opportunity for us to let parents have the controls online that they do offline."

Turning on sleep mode is also a good excuse for parents to have a conversation with their kids about the boundaries and limits they should have when using technology, said Tarunya Govindarajan, product manager for Messenger Kids. 

Facebook is under intense scrutiny after last month's scandal involving Cambridge Analytica, a digital consultancy that improperly accessed 87 million Facebook users' data without their consent. The controversy has raised questions about privacy and data collection at Facebook, and it has caused the company to reexamine lots of its policies.

Kids will see a countdown clock before "sleep mode" kicks in.

Messenger Kids has had its fair share of drama. In January, a group of 20 organizations including the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, ACLU and Parents Across America signed an open letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg calling the app "irresponsible" and urging him to discontinue it.

Facebook says it regularly talks to child development groups and thousands of parents, both on an ongoing basis and during the original development of the app.

The social network isn't the only big tech company that's drawn controversy for how it's dealt with kids using its platforms. YouTube, owned by Google, has been in the hot seat for YouTube Kids, a family friendly version of the massive video site. Last year, inappropriate videos -- like one where Mickey Mouse gets run over by a car -- were getting past the site's filters. Earlier this week, YouTube said it was putting new safeguards on the service. For example, one tweak gives parents the ability to handpick every video and channel a child can access.

Davis said Facebook works with Google and the other big tech companies when it comes to issues like bullying or child exploitation. "The major industry players take this very seriously," she said. 

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