Facebook is expanding Messenger Kids, its chat app designed for children under 13, to countries outside of the US, even as the company receives criticism from child advocacy groups.
The company on Friday said it's bringing the service to Peru and Canada. As part of the expansion, Facebook is making the app available in Spanish and French.
Messenger Kids, 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.
The expansion comes even as the service has drawn criticism from educational, consumer and child development groups, arguing that excessive exposure to social media is harmful to children and young teens.
A group of 20 organizations including the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC), the ACLU and Parents Across America signed an open letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in January. They called the app "irresponsible" and urged him to discontinue it. Last month, the CCFC followed up on the letter with a petition signed by 21,000 people asking Facebook to discontinue the product.
Facebook says it meets regularly with third-party child advocacy groups as it continues to develop the app. For the international expansion, the social network said it worked with groups including Media Smarts, a not-for-profit in Canada focused on digital literacy for children.
Representatives from Facebook and Media Smarts said the social network didn't pay the organization for its work.
However, Media Smarts said Facebook is one of its top sponsors. The organization, though, said it acts independently.
"Facebook is a sponsor of MediaSmarts, however we have strict guidelines for sponsors to maintain the independence and integrity of our programs," a spokeswoman said.
In addition to the international expansion, Facebook updated some of the controls for the app. For example, now two parents will be able to manage a child's account, instead of just one.
Facebook also created a "pledge" for families, which the company describes as a set of "guiding principles between parents and kids that encourage the responsible use of Messenger Kids." Parents will see the pledge while they are setting up the account for their kids. Ideally families are expected to take the pledge together before the kid gets access to the device.
The four points of the pledge are: "Be Kind," "Be Respectful," "Be Safe" and "Have Fun."
The social network said it's also planning to release something called the "appreciation" mission, an interactive guide within the app that encourages kids to express appreciation for friends and family. It's part of the section of the app called "Missions." This section teaches kids how to do certain things, including starting video calls and sending photos.
First published June 22, 4 a.m. PT.
Update, 9:59 a.m. PT: Adds comment from Media Smarts.
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