Facebook rolled out a new feature this week, Messenger Kids, in what appears to be an effort to attract users younger than 13 — a group that was previously not allowed to join the social network.
The launch, which has been positively framed as a way to make parents feel better about their kids under 13 using the social media platform, embraces the idea of supervised security. “As a mom, I know how meaningful it can be when kids use technology to connect with family and friends, but I also know how important it is to make sure they’re safe whenever they go online,” Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg says in the demo video.
It’s no secret the Internet can be a dark and dangerous place for children, filled with predators and bullies. While it’s nice to see that Facebook is taking steps to monitor and combat that, the tech conglomerate has failed to address the ever-accumulating and increasingly alarming research that suggests that an increase in social media and smartphone use can negatively impact the emotional and mental well-being of children and teens. Indeed, rather than improving the social lives of young ones, social media appears to be having the opposite effect, a theory supported by more and more studies.
In one study released in November in the Clinical Psychological Science journal, the authors drew a strong association between an increase in teen suicides from 2010 to 2015 and an increase in social media usage. According to the study, social media can incite cyberbullying and paint inaccurate depictions of their peers’ body images and overall lives. In 2015, according to the study, 36 percent of teens reported feelings of sadness, hopelessness, or suicidal ideation, a 32 percent increase from 2009 — when social media wasn’t as prominent in people’s lives. In the same study, there was a 70 percent increase, since 2009, in teens who spent an average of 5 hours a day on their smartphones.
Jean Twenge, a psychologist who studies social media behavior, wrote an article in The Atlantic recently about her findings. As she explained, “social-networking sites like Facebook promise to connect us to friends. But the portrait of iGen teens emerging from the data is one of a lonely, dislocated generation.” Teenagers who visit social media sites, she says, on a daily basis to see what their friends are up to are more likely to agree with statements like “I often feel left out of things,” and “I feel lonely.”
Yet if social media seems to be a magnet for lonely, disaffected teens and children, tech companies like Facebook — who have direct insight into their digital interactions — have failed to address how they’re going to save them. When we asked Facebook about the launch of Facebook Messenger Kids, and whether the company was aware of studies such as the one that appeared in Clinical Psychological Science, they told Salon it is better to be able to monitor what children and teens are already doing. As Loren Cheng, the Product Management Director at Facebook, told Salon:
“We know that kids are already using technology, and we want to help ensure their experiences are as safe and positive as they can be. We built Messenger Kids to be an app that encourages meaningful connections with friends and family versus other online activities like watching videos or scrolling through a feed. We think teaching kids how to use technology in a positive, healthy way early on will bring better experiences later as they grow and we understand the importance of approaching this work with thought and care."
Up until this product launch, children under the age of 13 were unable to sign up for Facebook. While children still technically can’t create their own accounts—this must be done by their parents, who have to download the app to their child’s device — the company is encouraging, and welcoming, their participation.
Still, we’re left asking, why target kids? Alas, it makes sense when you look at studies showing that younger people are leaving Facebook for alternatives like Snapchat and Instagram. Though Instagram is owned by Facebook, having more active Facebook users drive the company's revenues.