Parents, whose kids use the Facebook Messenger Kids app, will now be able to see recent contacts and chat history of their kids’ interactions, images kids sent and received in their inbox, and a list of contacts kids have blocked/unblocked, Facebook’s product manager Morgan Brown said in a blog post on February 4. Parents will also be able to log their kids out of the Messenger Kids app remotely, and download their kids’ information including their contacts as well as the messages, images and videos they have sent and received. Parents can access these new features in the Messenger Kids Parent Dashboard in the Facebook iOS and Android apps.

Messenger Kids was launched in 2017, and is a video chat and messaging app for kids aged between 6-12. The app is not available in India. It is also worth noting that there is no way that Messenger Kids can ascertain that the person using the app is indeed a kid, and while its user onboarding process is marginally better than YouTube Kids‘ for instance since it relies on a parents’ Facebook account to set up an account, it still doesn’t ensure that kids will remain protected while using the app.

Updates to parental controls on Messenger Kids:

  • See conversation partners, and frequency of conversations: Parents can see a child’s conversation partners and whether they’re video-chatting or texting, along with the conversation frequency over the past 30 days.
  • Access photos and videos kids sent and received: Parents will be able to view the most recent photos and videos the kid sent and received in their inbox and remove inappropriate messages and report them to Facebook.
  • See why kids blocked someone, log-out remotely: Parents will be able to access lists of their child’s reporting and blocking actions and the people they’ve blocked or unblocked, as well as messages or contacts they’ve reported and the reasons for those actions. Parents and children can both block people on the app.
    • Parents would be able to monitor the devices using which their kid has logged into their Messenger Kids account, and force a log-out remotely.
  • Download kids’ information with the app: They can request a copy of their child’s contacts in addition to the messages, images, and videos they’ve exchanged. The kid will be notified whenever their parent downloads such information. Facebook launched a similar feature on the core Facebook app and website, called “off-Facebook activity,” last month.
  • Kids can now unblock blocked users on their own and have a conversation with them: Kids will be able to unblock a blocked contact on their own and restart a one-on-one chat with them. Although, chats with blocked contacts will stay in the kid’s inbox for parents to review.
    • There’s a problem here: Why should a kid be allowed to unblock a blocked user, and start chatting with them with no parental oversight?
  • Kids can be added to group chats with blocked contacts: Kids and their blocked contacts will remain visible to one another and will stay in shared group chats, but will not be able to message each other individually.
    • They would be notified if they enter a group chat that includes people who they have blocked.
    • Issue: Kids can potentially chat with people they have blocked if they get added to the same group chat. This should not be allowed, since the person would have been blocked in the first place for a reason.
  • Facebook also said that it would try and educate children using “kid-appropriate” language about the kind of information people can see about them.

Updates to privacy policy of the app:

  • Run surveys on the app: The updated privacy policy includes certain provisions that Facebook plans to roll out in the future, such as enabling Messenger Kids users to provide feedback directly in the app when something isn’t working and run user surveys to help improve product features.
    • Parents will have 90 days to review and accept the new privacy policy. We have asked Facebook what would happen in case a parent doesn’t approve the new policy within the prescribed time frame.
    • UPDATE: Facebook told us that in case parents don’t approve the updated privacy policy within 90 days, they would not be able to use the Messenger Kids app.
  • Information sharing: Facebook said that it shares information from Messenger Kids with service providers for the purpose of operating the service, and requires them to “adhere to strict data confidentiality and security obligations”, and works with them on things like reviewing and addressing reported issues from users.
    • It clarified that it doesn’t sell parents’ or kids’ data to anyone.
  • Information Messenger Kids collects: As part of the update to the privacy policy, Facebook revealed the kind of information it collects via the Kids app, and it is quite an exhaustive list: names, profile photos, demographic details (gender and birthday), contacts’ information, app usage information, device attributes and unique identifiers, data from device settings, network information and information provided from things like bug reports or feedback/contact forms. Facebook said that it shares this information with other Facebook Companies.
    • This information was not a part of the previous privacy policy, which was last updated in June 2018.

Facebook’s repeated failure to protect children online

Messenger Kids

  • In 2019, The Verge reported of a design flaw in the app that allowed users to sidestep protections in the group chat system, allowing children to enter group chats with unapproved strangers. Facebook admitted the flaw and sent alerts to the parents of the children affected.
  • In 2018, a report in the Wired found that the majority of experts who vetted Messenger Kids before its launch were given money by Facebook.
  • The same year, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, in an open letter to CEO Mark Zuckerberg, had called for shutting down the app, warning that the app is “harmful to children and teens,” and that it could “undermine children’s healthy development.”

Facebook Research app

  • In June 2019, it was revealed that through its now-defunct Facebook Research app, Facebook collected data on 34,000 teenagers, aged between 13 and 17 years old. 4,300 of these teenagers were based in the US, while the remaining 29,700 teenagers were from India.
  • Following that, it launched its new market research app, Study. It is essentially the same app as Research, but only for Android devices.

Updated on February 6 with Facebook’s response to our query. A previous version of the story has been archived here.