Milestones when your child reaches age 6: Her first baby tooth comes out. He wobbles through his first bike ride. She can count to 100, and his vocabulary tops 5,000 words. Now there’s a new rite of passage – that first Facebook chat.
Yes, Facebook has made it possible. Mark Zuckerberg’s social media giant has unveiled a Messenger Kids app that allows children younger than 13 and as young as 6 to text, video chat and send photos. Parents’ approval is required, and parents also must sign off on every new person added to their child’s contact list. Parents, and not their children, create the account. Kids 13 and older are allowed to use Facebook as any adult does.
Facebook says kids are spending more time on smartphones and tablets and their app offers a controlled environment to connect with relatives and friends. “Right now for kids, the time they spend on devices is very passive,” David Marcus, vice president of messaging products at Facebook, told The New York Times. The app comes with Snapchat-style filters such as playful masks that can be applied to photos kids send. Facebook also stresses that Messenger Kids will be ad-free.
Alas, the winds of change have turned into gales. For communication and safety reasons, it’s common now for children under 13 to have smartphones. Preteens text and call each other, they Snapchat one another, they freely exchange Instagram images. It’s a social media world.
But that’s where parental stewardship, and common sense, come into play. A kid who’s 11 or 12 probably can find some utility in Messenger Kids. But a child who’s 6 or 7? At 6, most kids are still honing the rough edges of their burgeoning language skills. And 6 or 7 seems young for a kid to wade into the dicey, you-can’t-take-it-back nature of social media.
With all of that data collection, some parents will wonder whether Facebook is grooming future users. “Why should parents simply trust that Facebook is acting in the best interest of children?” James Steyer, chief executive of Common Sense Media, told the Times.
Social media is here to stay. But it’s incumbent on parents to keep an eagle eye on their kids’ social media use and head off online overindulgence at the expense of in-the-flesh interaction with real people in the real world.