Facebook Launches Chat App for Tykes and Tweens

Facebook Inc. said it is rolling out a new messaging app for its youngest audience yet--children between the ages of six and 12--in response to growing safety concerns from parents. But experts are questioning whether such young children are ready for any social-media access.

Messenger Kids, released Monday, is a stand-alone chat and messaging app that allows children to send texts, messages and videos to a list of contacts their parents have approved. Parents can download the app on a child's tablet or smartphone and activate and control it from their own Facebook account, including who's on the child's contact list.

Facebook, which owns the Messenger messaging app, said it consulted child-development and online-safety experts, the parent-teacher organization National PTA, and thousands of parents as it developed Messenger Kids. There will be no advertising on the app and Facebook said it won't create separate Facebook accounts for the youngsters. The only data it will collect on them will be their names.

"What parents told us is there is a clear need for a service that looks like a responsible on-ramp to the internet," said Facebook spokesman William Nevius.

But the app also stands to help Facebook groom future users in a demographic group in which it has been vulnerable. Facebook hasn't been as popular with teens and young adults as Snap Inc.'s Snapchat. Messenger Kids looks a lot like Snapchat, in that it offers silly masks and other Snap-like features--even one like the popular rainbow vomit filter.

Children are spending increasing amounts of time on smartphones and tablets at younger ages, Facebook and other researchers say. But Facebook doesn't allow children under 13 to have accounts without parental consent. Messenger said it won't migrate the Kids users to the main app when they turn 13.

Child-development experts are concerned by the launch, which could present dangers with the messages children see, as well as the way they could get hooked on social media.

"In my research, clinical work and friendships, I've never heard parents say that they want their child using social media earlier," said Jenny Radesky, assistant professor, pediatrics at the University of Michigan, who specializes in developmental and behavioral health. Her research includes examining how increased screen time might affect early childhood behavior and development.

Facebook cited research from U.K. consulting firm Dubit showing that about two-thirds of six to 12-year-olds in the U.S. use tablets or smartphones every day. Facebook said it didn't commission the research from Dubit, which also creates online entertainment for children, including a virtual-reality game for the Facebook-owned Oculus Rift, according to its website.

Children in the 6-12 age bracket aren't ready for a messaging app, says Dr. Radesky. "It's the content of messaging--the unintentional slights, insults, or oversharing--that I would want parents to be able to monitor."

Parents won't be able to monitor their children's usage in real time. They don't have access to the content of those messages from their accounts, Facebook said, citing its research showing that parents are accustomed to scanning those messages directly from their child's devices from time to time.

Messenger designed the app to be engaging. It includes GIFs, stickers and the ability to draw on photos. Messenger Kids also allows for simultaneous group video chats, which look a lot like Houseparty, another new app popular with young users that lets groups of people hang out on live video.

Such features are designed to hook users, raising concerns among child-development experts and advocates. "When child usage becomes prolonged and immersive it can interrupt or displace other important activities such as reading, sleep, or social interactions." says Dr. Radesky.

Mr. Nevius said Facebook shares concerns about screen time for children. "We will continue to look at this issue and be involved in the research and plan to incorporate some screen time controls into the app," he said.

Some child advocates questioned Facebook's long-term intentions. "We appreciate that for now, the product is ad-free and appears designed to put parents in control," said Jim Steyer, chief executive of Common Sense Media, which advocates for safe media and tech for kids. "But why should parents simply trust that Facebook is acting in the best interest of kids?"

Mr. Nevius said the company has set up the app so that parents are in control.

Write to Betsy Morris at betsy.morris@wsj.com and Deepa Seetharaman at Deepa.Seetharaman@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

December 04, 2017 08:14 ET (13:14 GMT)