Messenger Kids: made for kids, controlled by parents?

Parents are all about keeping their children connected to friends and family during isolation but what else are children connecting to in these ‘kid-friendly’ applications? (Image source: texarkanagazette)

By Gabrielle Torpey |@gabrielletorpey

While there are well-known positive and negative outcomes of social media, isolation has caused a surge of popularity with various platforms that connect people with friends and family.

Kid-friendly applications have especially become popular despite the correlation between increasing cyber crime and the world’s shared crisis. Today, parents seem less cautious about the traditional dangers of the internet and are more concerned about fulfilling their children’s social needs.

But parents only need to look past the App Store reviews to discover the truth about these so-called kid-friendly applications. Families need to be warned, hackers are not the only ones taking advantage of the world’s vulnerability right now.

Messenger Kids is a platform commonly described as ‘messenger for kids,’ but the application contains a unique collection of tools that would make any helicopter parent froth at the mouth.

The free platform, designed by Facebook for ages 6–12, advertises “Kid-friendly filters, reactions, and sound effects… Stickers, GIFs, emojis, and drawing tools give kids more ways to express themselves.”

Messenger Kids has special parental controls, meaning a child cannot have an account without a parent or caregiver setting one up. Parents can adjust settings, review and manage contacts, and receive notifications whenever their child reports or blocks someone.

The parental dashboard allows parents to view recent contacts, images and videos shared in chats and chat history. Parents can even enable a ‘Sleep mode’ to prevent kids from using the app during set times.

Sounds foolproof, right?

In April 2020, privacy evaluation company Common Sense reviewed Messenger Kids and reported it didn’t meet minimum requirements for privacy and security practices. The platform received a ‘warning’ rating, collecting personal identifiable information and behaviour data from users even though industry standard practices are not used to protect that data.  

Under Common Sense’s review of the application’s parental consent settings, Messenger Kids only scored 60 per cent. The review suggested the application was not appropriate for children under the age of 13 without constant parental supervision.

When the application was released, MIT Technology Review stated Facebook “is not to be trusted. After all, you’ve seen how the company treats adults.”

In an interview with MIT, co-founder and president of the Center for Humane Technology Tristan Harris said, “It’s like Coca-Cola inventing a kids’ soda product. It still has to sell sugar; it can’t really be genuinely concerned with the well-being of kids.”

With over 30 years of experience, primary school teacher and principal Ms Smith* faced new and emerging challenges with the application after concerned parents reported inappropriate behaviour.

None of her school’s staff knew of the application beforehand, and parents were informed the application was not allowed inside the school or on school devices. Parents were also advised to delete their children’s profiles.   

“[It is] frightening that parents now sign their kids up and position themselves to be 24/7 supervisors of their kids, which they clearly aren’t and don’t have the time to do, even for the most protective and vigilant,” said Ms Smith.

Although the application is set up specifically to help parents keep an eye on their children’s use of social media, Ms Smith said parents are incapable of keeping up with the multiple conversations their children are having. 

“Depending upon how many groups children create, the most vigilant parents abandon checking every notification that pings on their devices…[they are] lulled into a sense that their child will behave appropriately.”

Ms Smith and staff soon correlated bad behaviour and grades in the classroom with Messenger Kids, even though students were not using it in school. Staff also started to recognise signs of depression and bullying within the school after these social media accounts were made.

“Almost all of my families who have subscribed to [Messenger Kids] in a genuine attempt to provide ‘social’ contact for their children during isolation, have reported heightened anxiety, fights, and many children being exposed to the mental health issues and threats of self-harm.”

According to Deakin University only a few studies that have found a direct connection between social media and depression. But, with 91 per cent of children using social media today, rates of depression and anxiety have risen 70 per cent in the past 25 years.

The Australian Institute for Health and Welfare found in 2013–14, an estimated 314,000 children aged 4–11 experienced a mental disorder. Anxiety was the second most common mental disorder, after ADHD.

In 2018, the Australian Bureau of Statistics found there were 100 recorded suicides of children ages 5–17, making suicide the leading cause of death among Australian children.

UniSA allied health and human performance professor Leonie Segal said 7 per cent of children in South Australia were suffering extreme levels of distress in 2018.

“The consequences of poor mental health for the individuals and society are dire – school failure, family separation, depression, self-harming, alcohol abuse, suicide, welfare dependency, child protection involvement, teen pregnancy, involvement in crime – a cycle of damage and powerlessness,” she said.

With parents assuming parental-controlled social media doesn’t require supervision, and social media applications giving possibly false assurances of protection, children are incredibly vulnerable to the pitfalls of social media.

Parents should at least be checking beyond the appealing advertising of these so-called kid-friendly applications if they want their children using any form of social media.

* Name changed due to legal and privacy concerns.

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