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Facebook’s Messenger Kids: Important new digital-parenting tool

Facebook’s launch of Messenger Kids is a game-changer – but not just in the way you might think. Sure it’s the world’s largest social media service’s first product for people under 13. That’s certainly big news, and what will capture most of the headlines this week. But it’s actually a combination of that and something less noticeable and more meaningful that’s really game-changing about Messenger Kids:

FB Messenger Kids screenshot

Videochat between generations AND species ;)

It’s not a social media parental control tool, it’s a social media learning tool – for parents as well as kids (probably kids at the younger end of the 6-12 age range of this first version of the product). So it’s for digital-age parenting training as well as social media training – especially as FB rolls it out internationally, in countries where kids aren’t already using Snapchat and Musical.ly. Even here in the U.S., though, it’s a great tool for families’ inter-generational communication (grandparents will be learning and enjoying the visual kind more and more from their grandchildren).

More on digital-age parenting in a minute. First, don’t get me wrong, Messenger Kids has plenty of parental controls (see the list below), and more will be added as the product evolves. But they’re all in service to a different goal than control: learning how to navigate social media together.

What parents want

That’s what parents, to their credit, want, according to the National PTA’s research for Facebook. They surveyed a nationally representative sample of 1,200 U.S. parents of 6-12 year-olds and found that most (64%) see value in “online technologies as tools for learning,” and 63% feel social media provides kids with “digital skills that are mandatory in society today.” But most parents (75%) also want more control – to have more of a say in how their kids use social media and to help them use messaging and other apps responsibly.

That last part lines right up with academic research in multiple countries, which found that parental mediation, not restriction, will have the most positive impact on children’s online experiences, as well as their development in this digital age.

Here are other good things for parents to know about Messenger Kids:

  • It’s focused on kids’ favorite digital tool: mobile (tablets and phones) – particularly optimized for tablets – where parents’ concerns are understandably focused most. And if you use Google’s Family Link or Apple’s Restrictions, this is one of the apps you can allow with it.
  • It’s simple – nothing hard for digitally challenged grandparents to use (their grandchildren can teach them!) – built with kids in mind, based on years of research (remember the rash of news stories speculating about a U13 Facebook a few years ago)? It’s messaging (like texting), a camera for photos, videos and videochat, and tools like emojis, stickers, masks and a drawing tool to get creative with those photos and videos.
  • It’s a positive learning tool, not a response to a decade of scary headlines about young social media users. It puts parents in the driver’s seat, giving them the chance to bring their values into their kids’ online social experiences. The other thing I like is that it starts to prepare *kids* to be in the driver’s seat, for example, by teaching them how to report inappropriate content and mean behavior they experience in the app.
  • The app will evolve as FB learns how families use the service. This is not the age of releasing a finished product; it’s the age of iteration – launching, learning, tweaking. I predict that families with kids 6-9 will be this app’s biggest users, and Facebook told me this is just the start for Messenger Kids.

Key safety features

  1. Parents do the set-up and approve everyone on a child’s contact list, and this works both ways: the parents of the child being added to your child’s Contacts approve your child as well.
  2. There are no ads, no in-app purchases and no sharing of kids’ data with other apps on their devices.
  3. Messenger Kids has its own specialized kid content moderation team.
  4. The app will, in effect, teach kids how to report harassment and inappropriate content by giving them popup feedback, and – through their own Facebook Messenger accounts – it keeps parents informed of how that’s going.
  5. Parents get notifications of kid activity, including when kids report problems, within their (the parents’) Facebook accounts.
  6. Content doesn’t go away and can’t be deleted, so parents can check their children’s devices to find out what’s going on.
  7. App time, bedtime and other controls will be tested with users and likely added as the product rolls out.

So about that digital age parenting

A product like this is not just the best way, it’s really the only way to learn how to navigate today’s very social media – parents and kids diving in and swimming together in these media environments. Because they’re the newest “places” where our children’s (and our) everyday social lives are experienced and expressed. “Social” is both individual and iterative – always changing as we and the people in our social circles change, right? It’s continuous experiential learning. So learning competency in social media is only a little about learning how to use technology. It’s mostly about learning how to be socially and emotionally competent in all social environments – this digital kind too. So good on Facebook for releasing this app. I encourage parents and kids to start playing with it together – and have fun with that!

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