Full disclosure, when Facebook’s Messenger Kids (MK) first came out in 2017, I was skeptical. As a GKIS screen safety expert, I published an article accusing Facebook of branding our kids and introducing them to the world of social media too young. Soon after, Facebook’s Head of Global Safety contacted me to let me in on some things I hadn’t thought about. She said that they’d done the research and found that kids were already using their parents’ messaging apps whether we liked it or not. To increase safety and offer parent management and kid-friendly features, they decided to trial Messenger Kids. They also offered me a volunteer spot on their Youth Advisory Committee for ongoing input. Since I joined in 2017, I’ve enjoyed a monthly collaborative call with about 25 other child development experts from over the world. Messenger Kids has benefitted from some of the most respected experts in the business, including Sesame Street, The Fred Rogers Institute, and the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, among many others. Do you want a safe way for your child to message and video chat with friends and family? This GKIS Sensible Guide offers you the information you need to make a competent decision about whether Messenger Kids makes sense for your family.
What is Messenger Kids?
Messenger Kids is a video conferencing app for kids that was released by Facebook in 2017. It was created as a safe alternative to Facebook’s Instant Message.
How old is old enough for adoption?
Messenger Kids is designed for kids ages 6 to 12 as a safe, parent-managed way for children to video chat and message with friends and family.
After downloading the app, you will be prompted to complete the following:
- Log into your Facebook account
- Once logged in, you will be prompted to enter your child’s name and their birth date.
- After the account is created, you will be shown a list of other Messenger Kids accounts, as well as Facebook accounts to add to your child’s friend list.
- Add a second parent or guardian who would be able to manage the account as well.
- Set a code that your child can give out to their friends which would request your permission to be a contact.
After you have completed all the above steps, your child will be prompted to add a photo of themselves, set a color to decorate the app, and complete “missions” to get to know the functions of the app. Your child will be prompted to read the Messenger Kids Pledge to be kind, be respectful, be safe, and have fun.[i]
What are the main features?
- A parent dashboard that displays your child’s activities, contacts, and controls
- Provide education to the child about new control features
- Blocking a user allows the user to remain in the contact list, but the child will not be able to have individual conversations with that user
- The child can use photo filters to send images to their contacts and to video chat
- There are several “missions” the child can complete
- Grow a pet
- Play a drawing game
- Learn 4 things about your information
- Add a friend
- Take a funny photo
- Create a group
The Parent Dashboard
Because Facebook gets feedback from kids, parents, and child development experts, Messenger Kids is always changing for the better. For example, the updated parent dashboard is where you can see all of your child’s latest activities, contacts, and controls at a glance in one place. It also shows you
- who and what content your child has reported or blocked and why,
- a list of recent chats and calls (including how frequently your child is chatting/calling and with whom),
- an image gallery of all the images and videos exchanged by your child and their contacts (including whether exchanged in a group).
Facebook has also thought through Kids’ digital literacy and privacy needs by notifying child users of the new parental control features in a Data Transparency Flow. Kids are prompted to go through this education with a push notification. It’s also available in the “mission” section of the app for kids. New users engage with this education during the registration process. They’ll get important basic information about how their personal data is used and shared when they use Messenger Kids – a great first step to cyber awareness and privacy issues in general.
Because child friendships need a healthy pause here and there, Facebook has also made blocking easier to use and less permanent. Before, if a child blocked someone, they were automatically removed as a contact. Now when a kid blocks someone, they won’t be able to communicate in a 1:1 chat, but they’ll remain contacts and still be able to be in group chats together. This allows kids to leave or stop individual interactions they no longer want while not having to leave group environments they may share with that contact. The child is always warned when they return to or start a group chat that contains a blocked contact that they have the option to continue to the chat, leave the group, or cancel joining the chat.
What are the privacy and safety options?
- Child’s full name
- Child’s profile photo
- Child’s gender and birthday
- Child’s contact list[ii]
Facebook has recently added more controls. In the controls tab, you can see which device your child is logged into on MK, when your child last used MK on those devices and enables you to log your child out of selected devices. Parents also have the ability to remove and report any of these images and videos from the same Dashboard (doing so will remove that content from the child’s thread and notify them that you removed it).
As long as parents stay on top of who’s being friended and the information that is being exchanged, there are few risks associated with using Messenger Kids. The parent has the ability to control what the child can and cannot do as well as who they contact. Parents can also see what has been shared (and deleted).
However, any messaging app has its risks, especially when kids are involved. Here are a few we at GKIS thought you may want to consider
- Your child and their friends may post inappropriately or impulsively
- Cyberbullying between known contacts, like exclusion.
- Too much access to friends and screens (of course, parents can schedule the use and use the sleep feature).
- Your child is exposed to the Facebook brand, just as they are other popular American brands like Coca-Cola, Harley Davidson, and Budweiser.
Because parents have so much management opportunity and kids love the socializing, GetKidsInternetSafe rates Messenger Kids as a green-light app. We also love that Messenger Kids offers educational information that helps kids make better decisions with friends onscreen.
Thank you to CSUCI intern Makenzie Stancliff for co-authoring this article. For more information on keeping your child safe on social media, check out the Get Kids Internet Safe Screen Safety Toolkit. Be sure to add Messenger Kids on to the free GKIS Connected Family Agreement as “appropriate.”
I’m the mom psychologist who will help you GetKidsInternetSafe.
Onward to More Awesome Parenting,
Tracy S. Bennett, Ph.D.
Mom, Clinical Psychologist, CSUCI Adjunct Faculty
[i] Introducing Messenger Kids, a New App For Families to Connect. (2019, November 7). Retrieved from https://about.fb.com/news/2017/12/introducing-messenger-kids-a-new-app-for-families-to-connect/
[ii] (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/legal/messengerkids/privacypolicy?version=2020