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08 December 2017, 12:10 | Jodi Jackson
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While children do use messaging and social media apps designed for teenagers and adults, those services aren't built for them, said Kristelle Lavallee, a children's psychology expert who advised Facebook on designing the service.
Markey and Blumenthal asked if Facebook would "commit that it will never change that policy and keep all its applications and services for children 12 and under" free of advertisements. So, parents can get full access on Facebook, while their children can befriend them on Messenger Kids and even play together.
The social network says the app has been created to enable children to "safely" video chat and message friends and family, and has been developed in consultation with parents and safety experts.
Messenger Kids comes with a variety of controls for parents. We've also had thought-provoking conversations around topics of responsible online communication, parental controls and much more with organizations like National PTA and Blue Star Families, where we heard firsthand how parents and caregivers approach raising children in today's digitally connected world.
Kids still can't be found through Facebook search, which protects their privacy. "Facebook needs to provide assurances that this "walled garden" service they describe is fully protective of children", they wrote. The company said it had spent months talking to parenting groups, child behavioural experts and safety organisations to aid in developing the app, as well as thousands of hours interviewing families on the ways members communicate with one another. Once their account is set up by a parent, kids can start a one-on-one or group video chat with parent-approved contacts.
Federal law prohibits Internet companies from collecting personal information on kids under 13 without their parents' permission and imposes restrictions on advertising to them.
"While we appreciate Facebook taking steps to protect this vulnerable population by including parental controls, establishing an ad-free environment and restricting some data collection, we remain concerned about where sensitive information collected through this app could end up and for what goal it could be used".
Facebook's focus on younger children raised some alarm bells, however. Once the parent has authenticated it with their own account, they set up a mini-profile with their kid's name and photo. The app does not contain ads and is free of in-app purchases. So if a child wants to be able to chat with one of their classmates, their parent must first friend that kid's parent, and then will see the option to approve that adult's child as a contact for their own kid.
The app is now only available in the U.S. on Apple's iOS operating system. The preview of the app is presently available on the App Store for iPad, iPod touch and iPhone users only. The company has no plans to release a similar kids-only platform for its other main social network, Instagram. "Since Messenger Kids is specifically designed for kids 12 and under, Facebook must take heightened care in ensuring the company creates a safe and controlled environment for its young users, complete with parental consent", the senators wrote. "The question becomes do we simply ban them and fight a losing fight?"
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