With over 2 billion users today, Facebook is already the world's biggest social network. But the company is looking ahead to tomorrow, and it's decided that a big new market of opportunity is with younger users.
To join Facebook or its free chat app Messenger, you need to be at least 13 years old. But Facebook on Monday announced Messenger Kids, a version of Messenger designed specifically for children younger than that. It's tied to a new account separate from regular Facebook or Messenger accounts.
The new app lets kids text and video chat with their family and friends. But because many kids don't have phones -- you need a phone number to create a regular Messenger account -- Messenger Kids lets parents sign up their children using just the child's first and last names. It's designed mostly for non-phone devices, like a tablet or iPod Touch. It's only available in the US on Apple's iOS for now, but it's coming soon to Google Android and Amazon Kindle devices.
As kids get increasingly comfortable with technology, the new app is a way for Facebook to get users into its ecosystem at an earlier age -- especially when rivals like Snap enjoy popularity with young people. Google announced something similar in March called Family Link, a set of Google services including Gmail built for kids 12 and under.
But Facebook has to avoid the pitfalls Google ran into with its products aimed at children. YouTube, owned by Google, has faced controversy in recent weeks over people abusing the platform with disturbing videos and sexually inappropriate comments aimed at kids. Messenger Kids took 18 months to develop, and Facebook says the goal was to create a messaging app that puts parents at the center, because children use those kinds of apps anyway. The company tested it with kids mostly between the ages of 6 and 11.
"They want to use messaging, and they use it today," said David Marcus, head of Messenger, during a press briefing in San Francisco last week. "But it's not done in a controlled fashion."
Messenger Kids won'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 app includes filters and lenses like those for Snapchat and Instagram that let you add digital graphics to your picture or video, like sunglasses or dog ears. There are also other augmented reality features like a game that lets you use the device's camera to look around the room and catch digital bugs. A partnership with the World Wildlife Fund shows kids facts about animals.
Here's how the app works: After you download it, you create a new account for your kid. When they turn 13, Facebook won't automatically migrate the account to a regular Facebook or Messenger account, but kids can choose to create them.
If a kid wants to add a contact, a parent needs to approve it. Parents also have to be friends on Facebook for their children to be contacts on Messenger Kids. When they are texting and video chatting, kids can report problems or abuse, and parents will get an alert too.
Facebook says all reports are handled by a team of human reviewers, but Loren Cheng, product management director for Messenger Kids, won't say how big the team is. The app also uses technology to scan for inappropriate or sexual images. It can't scan links, but Facebook is looking into that for future versions, said Cheng.
'A healthy dose of skepticism'
Facebook is announcing the service at a time when there's been lots of backlash toward apps targeted at children. YouTube Kids, designed as a family-friendly version of the video service, has faced numerous controversies over the past few weeks. The service's filters failed to recognize some videos that feature disturbing imagery but are aimed at children -- like Mickey Mouse lying in a pool of blood, or a claymation version of Spider-Man urinating on Elsa, the Disney princess from "Frozen."
YouTube also reportedly faces an advertiser boycott after some videos featuring kids were the target of comments from alleged child predators. In response, YouTube killed hundreds of accounts and removed more than 150,000 videos from the platform.
Meanwhile, Facebook for grownups has been under intense scrutiny for how that service was abused by Russia during last year's US presidential election. The episode has shed light on the shortcomings of algorithms and the vulnerability of tech platforms to be gamed by bad actors.
Facebook said it talked to or surveyed thousands of parents and created an advisory board of child development experts to safeguard the Kids app. One person on the board is Kristelle Lavallee, a content strategist at the Center on Media and Child Health, an academic research center that looks at how kids should consume media. The organization is part of Boston Children's Hospital and is affiliated with Harvard.
When Facebook first approached her in August and said it was making a messaging app aimed at kids, her first reaction was "alarm," she said. "A healthy dose of skepticism. Facebook is a corporation. They have a corporate ideology."
But she said Facebook reassured her by saying they'd refine the product after it came out based on feedback.
"They've been very clear that this is a journey," Lavallee said.
She also said there are benefits to introducing kids to technology early on -- but with limitations, like training wheels. It can help with their learning, and allow them to develop good habits. And since kids typically spend most of their time at home at those ages, parents can be more present.
Facebook also looked at how kids from different backgrounds would use the product. Another advisor was Kevin Clark, director of George Mason University's Center for Digital Media Innovation and Diversity. (Both Clark and Lavallee said they weren't paid by Facebook, though the company paid for their travel to meet with the team in California.)
Clark has done research on how African American teens and adolescents use technology in their homes.
"You can't look at young people in isolation," he said. For example, kids from low-income household typically don't get as much support or guidance from people at home when it comes to technology, he said. So it's important to get parents to engage with kids about tech, so they can teach them how and how not to use it.
"The more you can try to have parents and caregivers be part of the equation, the better," he said.
First published at 5 a.m. PT on Dec. 4.
Update at 10:37 a.m.: Adds information about Google's Family Link.
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