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Facebook launches Messenger Kids in India

Source: Facebook Blog

On April 22, Facebook launched its Messenger Kids app in more than 70 countries including India. The video chat and messaging app, which has been developed to be used by children under 13 years of age is currently available on iOS in India, and will be rolled out for Android by the end of the week, the company said in a release. This comes after the company had added certain parental controls to the app and also updated its privacy policy in February this year. The Messenger Kids app itself has raised concerns around children’s privacy in the last two years (more on that below).

New features announced, albeit not for Indian users

Along with the launch, Facebook also announced three new features to the app including allowing kids to accept, reject, add or remove contacts; allow parents to approve an adult to supervise a group their child is a part of; and more control over showing a kid’s name and profile photo. However, as of now, none of these features are available in India. Here’s a detailed look at them:

  1. Kids can accept contact requests: Parents can choose to allow their kids to also accept, reject, add or remove contacts. However, they can override contact approvals made by their kids using the parent dashboard.
    • When a kid takes a friending action, parents will be notified through Messenger and can override any new connections made.
    • This feature is currently available in the US and “will gradually roll out to the rest of the world”.
  2. Parent-approved adults can supervise a child’s group chat: Parents can approve an adult to supervise a group of kids that their child is a part of. These approved adults can only connect kids whose parents have also granted this adult the same approval. Parents will be notified when new contacts are added for their child.
    • Once connected through a group, kids will also be able to chat with each other individually, and can also leave groups they’re added to at any time.
    • This feature is currently available in the US.
  3. Parents can choose to make their kid’s name and profile photo visible to friends of their kid’s contacts and their parents, kids of the parent’s Facebook friends, and kids of people parents invite to download the Messenger Kids app.
    • This is currently possible in the US, Canada and Latin America, and will roll out to the rest of the world in the coming weeks.

Testing the app and the parent dashboard

First up, the app wasn’t immediately available on the App Store when we searched for “Messenger Kids”, and only appeared prominently in the search results when we searched for “Messenger Kids Facebook”.

Nothing to ascertain that a kid is using the app: After downloading the app, we could easily set up an account for a hypothetical child. The app asked us the child’s name and age and we could also choose adults that a kid could chat with. There was nothing in the process to actually ascertain that the person using Messenger Kids is actually a child. The part where a parent needs to put a picture of their kids can be skipped, and it is also possible to upload a picture from the gallery.

The parent dashboard that can be accessed from the core Facebook app, shows the parent how many messages a kid has shared, and with whom, contacts blocked or reported by the child or images and videos sent and received by the child.  It is also possible to remove or add adults and children from a child’s contact list using the dashboard.  Parents can also set sleep modes and change their kid’s online visibility status.

The app collects quite a lot of information on kids

Facebook had earlier claimed that there are no ads in Messenger Kids  and a kid’s information is not used for ads, and that the  app is compliant with the Children’s Online Privacy and Protection Act (COPPA). However, when we did a deep dive into the privacy policy of the app, when it was updated in February, we found that Facebook collects quite a lot of information on kids, including 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.

Read: Facebook announces additional parental controls for Messenger Kids

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.

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