Facebook Launches Messenger Kids App

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Facebook is launching a new version of its chat app targeting children under 13 with strict parental controls including contact approvals.

The free app, called Messenger Kids, hopes to attract parents looking for a safe online chat service, with a greater level of parental control, child-friendly features, screened content and safety filters to prevent children sharing inappropriate content.

Messenger Kids is a standalone app installed on the child’s tablet or smartphone, but controlled from a parent’s Facebook account. The child does not have a Facebook account, which is prohibited for those under 13; instead the app operates as an extension of the parent’s account. Only parents have the ability to add friends or delete messages.

There are no adverts or in-app purchases and the social network said the child’s information will not be used for advertising purposes. Facebook also said it will not automatically move users to the regular Messenger or Facebook when they get old enough, though the company may provide them the option to move contacts to Messenger down the line.

Loren Cheng, a product management director at Facebook, said: “Whether it’s using video chat to talk to grandparents, staying in touch with cousins who live far away, or sending mom a decorated photo while she’s working late to say hi, Messenger Kids opens up a new world of online communication to families.”

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 The Messenger Kids app on an iPad. Photograph: AP

Children can start one-on-one or group video or text chats with approved contacts, sending videos, photos, gifs and other creative elements from a library of screened drawing tools, frames, gifs, masks and stickers.

Facebook also said that it will block children from sharing nudity, sexual or violent content, and have a dedicated moderation team to respond to flagged content.

Messages sent to adults or those over 13 appear in their normal Facebook Messenger app. Parents control contacts and other options through their Facebook app on their smartphone.

The app, which is rolling out as a preview to iOS with Android coming later, is only available in the US for the timebeing. Facebook said it was fully compliant with the US Children’s Online Privacy and Protection Act, and that it had worked with online safety experts including the National PTA and Blue Star Families.

Kristelle Lavallee, a children’s psychology expert and content strategist at the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard University, worked with Facebook to develop the app. She said: “The risk of exposure to things [children] were not developmentally prepared for is huge.”

Facebook Messenger Kids “makes parents the gatekeepers” and was designed “with the best of intentions”, Lavallee said.

How – and if – the app ends up getting used remains to be seen. Despite US federal law prohibiting companies from collecting personal information on those under 13 years old without parental consent, millions are already on Facebook, with or without their parents’ permission, says Stephen Balkam, chief executive of the nonprofit Family Online Safety Institute.

He said Facebook is trying to deal with the situation pragmatically by steering young Facebook users to a service designed for them.

Messenger Kids offers an opportunity to introduce children to the wider Facebook ecosystem, fending off advances from rivals targeting children and teenagers, while locking parents and family into the social network to communicate with their children.

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