Facebook’s Messenger Kids app allows text and video chat, as well as sending photos. Children can add filters or playful drawings to the photos they send. NYT PIC

FEW big technology companies have dared to create online products for boys and girls aged 13 and younger. But, on Monday, Facebook introduced an app, called Messenger Kids, targeted at that age group and asks parents to give their approval so children can message, add filters and doodle on photos they send to one another. It is a bet that the app can introduce a new generation of users to the Silicon Valley giant’s ever-expanding social media universe.

In doing so, Facebook immediately reignited a furious debate about how young is too young for children to use mobile apps and how parents should deal with the steady creep of technology into family life. Some parents are saying Facebook’s snaking its way into children’s lives at an early age would most likely do more harm than good. They feel that children need personal time to process all the social interaction and learn to grow into mature people.

Just as vocal are parents who said children’s adoption of technology is an inevitability and appreciated Facebook’s approach with the new app.

Facebook’s official entry into the children’s market is a watershed moment both for families and the social network. Preteens and teenagers already flock to YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat and Musical.ly, general interest sites whose policies state that they are not for use by children younger than 13. Preteens are also avid senders of text messages.

But, only a handful of messaging and social apps — like Kudos, a photo-sharing app — are designed for younger children to use with parental permission and supervision. That’s because of a federal law, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, known as COPPA, which requires services aimed at children to obtain verifiable parental consent before collecting, using or disclosing personal information from a child younger than 13 — like photos, videos, voice recordings, location, contact information and names.

Until this year, even big tech companies had been loath to set up children’s sites with a parental consent system lest they violate the law. In 2011, for example, an operator of virtual worlds that had been acquired by the Walt Disney Co. agreed to pay US$3 million (RM12 million) to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that it illegally collected and disclosed personal information from children younger than 13 without parental consent.

Facebook said the point of Messenger Kids was to provide a more controlled environment for the types of activities that were occurring across smartphones and tablets among family members. The company said it had spent months talking to parenting groups, child behavioural experts and safety organisations to aid in developing the app, as well as thousands of hours interviewing families on the ways members communicated with one another. The app is compliant with COPPA, it added.

Messenger Kids is built so children do not sign up for new Facebook accounts themselves; Facebook’s terms of service require that users be 13 or older. The app requires an adult with a Facebook account to set up the app for his child. After he enters his Facebook account information into the app, he is asked to create the child’s profile and which friends or relatives he or she will be allowed to connect with on Messenger. Every additional friend request requires approval by the parent.

The app is fairly limited in scope, allowing for text and video chat, as well as sending photos. As with Instagram, Facebook or Snapchat, children can add filters or playful drawings to the photos they send.

Loren Cheng, product director for Messenger Kids, said Facebook would not use for marketing purposes the details it collected from children. He said the company would not automatically convert children’s accounts to adult accounts when they turned 13.

The app, which will be in a preview release on iOS devices before rolling out to a wider audience, is Facebook’s latest effort to increase the number of people who rely on its service to connect with one another regularly. More than two billion people use Facebook every month, while its other apps, like Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram, have billions of users.

Some children’s and privacy groups commended Facebook for saying that Messenger Kids would give parents control over children’s messaging and not show ads to children. But they also described Messenger Kids as a marketing effort to increase consumer loyalty. Others cautioned that the app raised concerns about children’s privacy.

According to Messenger Kids’ privacy policy, the app collects registration details from parents such as children’s full names. It also collects the texts, audio and videos children send, as well as information about whom the child interacts with on the service, what features they use and how long the children use them.

The privacy policy also says that “Messenger Kids is part of Facebook” and that the company may share information collected in the app with other Facebook services. While parents can delete their children’s Messenger Kids accounts, the policy says, the messages and content that a child sent to and received from others “may remain visible to those users”. NYT

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