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Facebook's Messenger Kids: Child advocates call for shutdown of app

Facebook is "unfit" to make a product for children, advocacy groups said in a letter to the company on Tuesday. Facebook says the app is safe.

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg

James Martin/CNET

Facebook should shut down a messaging app aimed at children under 13 years old, child advocates said Tuesday in a letter to the company. The missive follows a report last week that the social network duped kids into spending their parents' money on online games.

A year ago, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and other advocacy groups had asked Facebook to shutter its Messenger Kids, arguing that the advertisement-free app could lead to depression, unhealthy sleep habits and lower self-esteem. Now advocacy groups are renewing calls for the company to pull the plug on the app because they're concerned Facebook is knowingly exploiting children.

The social network allegedly facilitated "friendly fraud" by encouraging game developers to let kids spend their parents' money without their consent, according to a report by Reveal, a website run by the Center for Investigative Reporting. The nonprofit news organization cited more than 135 pages of unsealed court documents from a 2012 class-action lawsuit. 

"The documents appear to demonstrate that Facebook is willing to cause actual harm to children and families in its quest for profit," the advocacy groups said in a Tuesday letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. "As such, Facebook is unfit to make any platform or product for children, especially one like Messenger Kids."

Facebook, which launched Messenger Kids in December 2017, said the unsealed documents from the 2012 lawsuit are completely unrelated to Messenger Kids.

"Messenger Kids was released in 2017 and built from the ground up with input from families as well as privacy and safety experts to protect kids' privacy and put parents in control," a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement. "We have heard from child safety advocates that Messenger Kids is one of the safest apps for kids to connect with their family and friends."

A total of 15 advocacy groups signed the letter, including Common Sense, Badass Teachers Association, Defending the Early Years and the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

First published, Jan. 29, 7 a.m. PT
Update, 10 a.m. PT:
Includes the total number of advocacy groups that signed the letter.

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