In an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC), an organization that aims to limit commercial access to children as well as end child-targeted marketing, urged the Facebook CEO to discontinue the recently unveiled Messenger Kids. The desire comes as a result of the group’s assertion that “younger children are simply not ready to have social media accounts.”
Messenger Kids is Facebook’s first product aimed exclusively at kids under 13, a move which the CCFC fears will only push kids to spend more time in front of a screen as well as create “peer pressure” for kids to sign-up. In their letter, CCFC argues that kids under 13 who have already begun to use Messenger, the ‘adult’ version of the new service are “unlikely to switch to an app that is clearly designed for younger children.” As a result, the group fears that the target demographic for Messenger Kids will ultimately be kids even younger than 11 and 12 and that the app doesn’t quell a need but instead creates one.
The CCFC has a point about the dangers of incentivizing such young children to spend more time in front of a screen on social media. In an interview with Fatherly last year, Dr. Nicholas Kardaras, who’s been researching the development and effects of screen addiction, compares the advent of smartphones and tablets to the popularization of cigarette smoking both in terms of its addictiveness and ubiquitous nature. “The main clinical feature of any kind of addiction is that a behavior or a substance adversely affects your life and you continue to engage in that behavior or consume that substance regardless,” said Kardaras. “I’ve seen clinical cases of screen addiction first-hand that are so significant young people’s lives were being destroyed. Some of these young addicts had to be hospitalized.”
When the conversation takes a step beyond the personal implications of increased screen time, CCFC feels there are also larger ethical and political concerns that Messenger Kids doesn’t address —namely, the effects marketing. As far as the conversation surrounding targeted advertising demographics goes, Facebook had an answer for that as well. For Facebook, a huge selling point of Messenger Kids, in terms of safety, is the fact that none of the data acquired by the app will be used for marketing purposes and the service won’t contain ads either. Facebook says the app will also make a serious attempt to monitor and curb online bullying as well. While even the CCFC acknowledged that there is a huge upside to doing this, they still feel as if the end result is “likely to be negative,” because the app isn’t “normalizing social media use among young children,” any less.
The letter calls this normalization out as dangerous by noting that no matter what Facebook does or says, most kids still aren’t mature enough to properly “navigate the complexities of online relationships, which often lead to misunderstandings and conflicts even among more mature users.” Much like Kardaras, the CCFC notes that more screen time equals increased exposure to everything, and that can be damaging. The letter points out that “Social media use by teens is linked to significantly higher rates of depression, and adolescents who spend an hour a day chatting on social networks report less satisfaction with nearly every aspect of their lives.” The letter also cites a study claiming that “girls between the ages of 10 and 12 found the more they used social networking sites like Facebook, the more likely they were to idealize thinness, have concerns about their bodies, and to have dieted.”
In closing the CCFC expressed concerns that developing Messenger Kids as a way to combat the negative effects of social media indicates that the company won’t adequately address these concerns in a meaningful way, given how they’ve dragged their feet when it comes to crucial changes in the past.