Continued discussion: intersection of kids, tech, and well-being

About three months ago, Facebook rolled out a controversial mobile messenger app for kids. The app, which targets children aged 6-13 years, allows users to send texts online after connecting with a parent’s Facebook account. Its key features include sending pictures, edited pictures (think colorful drawings transposed over selfies, etcetera), videos, and emojis, all without the usual clutter of advertisements.

While Facebook argues their new novelty encourages kids to connect rather than spend time on passive mobile applications like games, health experts say the young children Messenger Kids targets are just beginning to grasp written communication and are developmentally unprepared for the app’s interactions. Facebook further claims kids increased involvement with technology in this modern age is inevitable, so parents might as well embrace platforms like Messenger Kids, which requires their consent and doesn’t subject young users to harmful advertisements. On the other hand, health experts ask if Facebook is truly acting in the best interest of children, or just trying to exploit parents’ loyalty to their platform while hooking kids early on.

At the core of this debate is the question of how young is too young for kids to begin using and relying on digital communication. It is reminiscent of the Fitbit for kids case covered in February: are children too young to be wearing health-tracking devices? As new technology like these challenge traditional notions of childhood, it’s no wonder parents and pediatric specialists alike are divided.

Reflecting on our article from two weeks ago, too, regarding the adverse happiness effects of increased screen time on teens, Messenger Kids critics’ can add another layer to their argument. In light of Twenge et. al.’s research, it’s hard to see how Facebook’s new app could improve health.  The app gives young children yet another reason to use a screened device, setting them up for more phone dependency as they enter adolescence. Even if we say that increased social media time reduces  happiness, and not messaging apps or screens themselves, this point only goes so far when considering Messenger Kids as a gateway for younger users until they reach Facebook’s minimum required age for an account. Facebook guidelines state users should be 13, conveniently right at the recommended age cap for Messenger Kids users. If Messenger Kids preps users to join the Facebook community as soon as they are 13, then the introduction of the app would in fact increase social media time (thus reducing happiness, according to Twenge et. al.). As early as age 6, Messenger Kids ropes children into social media.

Another argument could be made for the better health outcomes associated with kids being more communicative with their parents and friends. Yet digital communication can only go so far. This point has no more validity than one that notes greater ease of texting could lead to fewer genuine interactions. More research on the topic is necessary to stake such claims.

Finally, Facebook’s defense that they are offering a connective, active app in contrast to other “passive” options does nothing to actually reduce time spent in front of the screen. Perhaps the answer to passive mobile applications is not an “active” app like Messenger Kids, but rather encouraging non-screen activities. Viewing all technology adoption as “inevitable” is a rather unproductive stance. If a new app for children could lead to decreased happiness down the line, potentially compromising mental health, it is insufficient to stand by idly, saying it’s the lesser of two evils. We encourage parents who do use this app for their kids to explore other options out there, encouraging positive, non-digital interaction. After all, with regard to the collective behavior we noted two weeks ago, the app is only as good as its popularity.