Facebook’s Messenger Kids gets mixed reviews from parents in first year – CNET

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Shiu Pei Luu, Messenger Kids art director, brainstorms ideas for augmented reality masks with animator Gustavo Ramirez-Manriquez and sound designer Grey Robbins at Facebook’s Menlo Park headquarters.

James Martin/CNET

Shayla Bruyneel, a 40-year-old Michigan mom, recalls how she used to pick up a phone to call her friends when she was younger. Today, her two sons use a kid version of Facebook Messenger.

The boys, who are 9 and 6 years old, video chat with their friends or invite them over to play through Messenger Kids. They send selfies and emojis to their grandparents, aunts and uncles. When Bruyneel went shopping on Black Friday, her oldest son sent pictures of the family putting up the Christmas tree. 

She limits the children’s time on a tablet or Wi-Fi-only phone to 20 minutes per session from Friday to Sunday. “In my world, it’s all about balance,” she said.

Bruyneel is one of the parents Facebook has been hearing from in the first year the company rolled out its messaging app for kids, which is targeted at 6 to 12 year olds. The app sparked a debate among parents about what age they should allow their kids on social media. Child advocates have urged Facebook to shut down the app and argue it violates a federal law aimed at protecting a child’s online privacy.

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Facebook released more activities for kids on the anniversary of Messenger Kids. 

Facebook

Despite the controversy, Facebook executives said they have no plans to shut down Messenger Kids. Instead, they’re setting their sights in 2019 on making it easier for kids to connect with their friends.

“One of the things we’ve heard from parents over and over is they’re looking for the ability to have their kids edge out and move beyond family and into more close friendships,” said Jennifer Billock, who heads Messenger Kids at Facebook. 

Billock, who described the app as “training wheels for messaging,” said it lets children play in a safe environment with people who their parents approve. Through the use of stickers, games and other activities, Facebook is creating a digital playground for a younger generation of social media users. On Tuesday, Messenger Kids rolled out three activities on the app, including exercises for children to practice mindfulness, math and coding. 

But the app has received mixed reviews from parents since its debut in December 2017. Some said it lets them control who their kids connect with online, helping their children develop relationships with families and close friends. But one parent said that inappropriate content, including nudity, is slipping through the cracks.  

Child advocates still don’t see a middle ground. “If a majority of kids start moving their relationships to being online, that’s going to displace face-to-face relationships and time that they should spend playing with each other,” said Josh Golin, executive director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.

Golin sees Messenger Kids as a way for Facebook to develop brand loyalty to the world’s largest social network and attract new users when they become old enough to sign up for an account. You need to be at least 13 years old to create a Facebook account.

Antigone Davis, Facebook’s global head of safety, said the app complies with federal law and the company isn’t using data from Messenger Kids to target ads at parents or kids. It’s also focused on working with families and experts, she said, to deal with concerns such as cyberbullying and tech addiction. The tech firm, for example, launched a “sleep mode” so parents could limit their child’s time on the app. 

“There will always be people who think kids should not have access to technologies,” Davis said. “There are parents who don’t have televisions in their homes.”

Mixed reviews

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Facebook’s Messenger Kids app.

Jason Cipriani/CNET

Facebook said it’s using artificial intelligence to help catch content, such as nudity and violence, in Messenger Kids. Even so, some parents said inappropriate content has made its way to their children. 

Rugina Brazell, a 34-year-old mom in South Carolina, said her 6-year-old son uses Messenger Kids to chat with family who are mainly out of state. “It gave him the ability to have more personal conversations with family,” Brazell said.

But in late November, a video showing topless women in a Christmas photoshoot popped up in her son’s Messenger Kids account after a family member’s account got hacked, she said. Brazell had a conversation with her 6-year-old about internet safety and explained why the video was inappropriate. It wasn’t a topic she was expecting to talk about with her son at such a young age.

“To get that on an app that’s geared toward children, that was concerning as a parent,” she said. 

Brazell reported the video twice to Facebook because parents can’t directly delete an image or video from a child’s Messenger Kids conversation. She even wrote a public post on the Messenger Kids’ Facebook page asking for help.

By Monday, the video could no longer play, but Brazell said an image of six women in white bras was still on her son’s Messenger Kids conversation thread. A Facebook spokeswoman said the team built the app so content couldn’t just disappear, and that these were the type of discussions they’re currently having based on parental feedback. 

Facebook will also have to convince parents like Alison Fox in Georgia, a 42-year-old mom who limits her children’s contacts on Messenger Kids to immediate family.

At 12 and 9 years old, her children have smartphones so she can easily reach them. She uses an app called OurPact to limit the amount of screen time on the phones to 30 minutes per day and block other apps.

Fox downloaded Messenger Kids because it gave her a way to restrict and monitor who her children text. On iMessage, she said, anyone would be able to contact her kids. 

If her kids want to contact their peers, though, they can just talk to them in person or call, she said. Because she limits the use of Messenger Kids, Fox doesn’t view the app as a traditional form of social media.

“I’m not worried it’s a gateway drug to social media not in the way we use it personally,” she said. 

Facebook declined to share data about how many people are using Messenger Kids, but market research firm Sensor Tower estimates the app has been installed by 2.8 million App Store and Google Play users in the US, Canada, Mexico, Thailand and Peru.

Training wheels for messaging

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Ubin Li, a designer for Facebook Messenger Kids, works on a pink creature meant to teach children about mindfulness. 

James Martin/CNET

Inside Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, California, a team of artists and animators are building interactive games, masks and other augmented reality effects for kids.

Shiu Pei Luu, the art director for Messenger Kids, shows a Venn diagram that displays the team’s goals — communication, creativity and excitement for learning.

There’s a lot of details the team has to think about when it’s creating a new feature or activity for kids. In one of the new activities in the app, a pink creature is crying and throwing a tantrum but then sits down and starts meditating. “Take BIG, SLOW breaths!,” a bubble above the creature’s head says. 

Initially, the tantrum the creature was throwing appeared too violent so the team had to tone it down, Luu said. In another activity, kids can learn light coding by changing their facial features. When they open their mouths, a robot on their head dances around. 

Another games where users are collecting fruit in bowls with a peer also teaches kids about math. 

“It’s not just about being a winner,” Luu said. “But it’s learning how to collaborate and play well with others too.” 

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