Cassie Wilson got a strange notification the other day on her phone from Facebook Messenger, informing her that her cousin had reached out. On its own, that wasn’t strange, but her cousin is 10 years old. You have to be at least 13 to join Facebook.
“We used to see each other pretty frequently” until the coronavirus crisis forced them apart in Oregon, Wilson says. “All of her Girl Scout friends had gotten it, so she reached out to me.”
“It” is Facebook’s Messenger Kids, separate but related to the Facebook Messenger that adults might be more familiar with. Launched in December 2017, the app allows kids too young to join Facebook to use their parents’ Messenger account to interact with other kids. Parents have full access and must approve who kids contact; kids get to text, video chat, and send stickers to their pals.
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But critics were quick to accuse Facebook of trying to lure in children as a future customer base. Within a few months of Messenger Kids launching, the Cambridge Analytica scandal erupted, leading many to doubt Facebook’s intentions in reaching out to minors.
The coronavirus crisis and its subsequent school cancellations have made Messenger Kids unexpectedly popular. SensorTower, a firm which measures global app downloads, showed a noticeable increase in downloads of Messenger Kids as the coronavirus pandemic erupted.
“My wife showed it to me, all the moms were talking about it,” says J. R. Wells, a social studies teacher from Missouri. His 7-year-old son, Braden, missed seeing his friends and talking with them about their favorite television show, “The Masked Singer.” Within a couple days of isolation, Wells and his wife had downloaded Messenger Kids, and Braden and his friends began chatting and choreographing elaborate song-and-dance routines, much like the way older kids do with TikTok.
Wells hasn’t just brushed aside the fact that Messenger Kids is a Facebook product. In fact, he feels queasy about it. “I’m not on there myself,” Wells said (Braden’s account is via his wife’s), “but we feel better because we’re monitoring [Braden’s] activity.” Indeed, just last month, Messenger Kids introduced even more parental controls, including chat logs.
Daniel Sieradski of Syracuse, New York, echoed this sentiment. His 5-year-old son has taken to superimposing his face on a dancing bear or video chatting with his friends. Sieradski calls Facebook “one of the most vile companies.” But he justifies it, saying that the activities on the app “are not providing the kind of information that Facebook can capitalize on insofar as they aren’t shopping or liking posts or viewing any content. They’re just video chatting and playing games.”
While Zoom is getting a lot of attention right now for bringing adults virtually together, how kids are connecting is far more nebulous and confusing. Reports of preschoolers using “Zoomy” are adorable, and Amazon’s Echo Dot Kids—an Alexa-like device that has parental control and kid-appropriate books, songs, and games—is designed specifically for elementary school kids with the ability for them to call each other. But most American elementary school students don’t have access to Zoom’s video chatting capabilities or Echo Dot Kids through their districts because of laws requiring schools to offer equal learning opportunities for all kids, which is difficult to ensure. That can leave elementary school kids socially stranded during this period. And without the freedom or maturity to text or call up their friends, kids can feel frustrated and isolated.
Parents like Wells and Sieradski are willing to put their discomfort with Facebook aside for two reasons. First, Messenger allows their kids—too old for virtual playdates on Zoom and FaceTime, too young to have their own smartphone to text or use apps like Houseparty and social media accounts—to keep in touch.
“Braden doesn’t get to see his friends, and we have to navigate through it as well,” Wells says. “He’s pretty excited to talk to his friends. He’s happy, and he’s positive.” That’s a godsend for anxious, exhausted parents who are working from home but who also need to get some work done.
Morgan Brown, the product lead of Messenger Kids, calls it “technology with training wheels.” Not only does it give kids the ability to dip their toes into texting, but it gives them possibly their first exposure to stickers, gifs, and creative effects found on other platforms like TikTok, Snapchat, and Instagram.
Ultimately, Messenger Kids is for time-crunched adults like Sieradski, who are trying their best to adjust to this new normal. Sieradski says working from home, handling chores, and homeschooling and taking care of two kids, it’s tough. “I’m just trying to make the current situation as workable as possible, and that’s going to necessitate some compromises,” he says. “Technology is keeping our family together.”