The Campaign for An Innovation-Free Childhood

March 7, 2018

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Outraged consumer and child advocacy groups want Facebook to shut down Messenger Kids, its new app designed to allow children ages 6 to 12 to video chat or message family and friends with parental permission, arguing that social media use harms children. Not only are these groups wrong about the danger posed by this app, but they are wrong in their broader campaign to keep the benefits of innovation from children.

Opposition to the app—released in December—has been significant. The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a privacy advocacy group, and the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, an organization that works to limit marketers’ access to children, joined other groups in signing an open letter to Facebook labeling the initiative “irresponsible” and calling on the company to “pull the plug” on the app. Similarly, U.S. Senators Ed Markey and Richard Blumenthal sent the company a letter expressing concern about the impact of the app on children’s online privacy.

The letter follows a trend of attempts to limit children’s access to innovative technology. From attempts by a Colorado father to ban the sale of smartphones to preteens to calls from the Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood to stop the sale of a “smart” Barbie doll and the same organization’s success at scuttling efforts by Mattel to create a smart home device for kids, detractors have continuously resisted efforts to enable children to benefit from digital technology. These responses represent a techno-panic—a moral panic stemming from fears concerning a technology—that limit children from enjoying the kinds of digital innovations that adults benefit from.

This version of a techno-panic exists despite research suggesting that technology can help children, from developing cognitive skills, such as storytelling, to promoting better dental hygiene through smart toothbrushes. Moreover, smart toys can aid children with disabilities. For example, Leka is a spherical robot that helps autistic children develop motor and communication skills through games such as “Simon Says.”

And like the aforementioned innovations, Messenger Kids also presents several benefits.

First, research shows video chatting can be beneficial. A 2016 study published in Developmental Science, a journal covering developmental psychology, demonstrated that infants learn social and cognitive skills through video chatting. The platform also is a way for kids to understand family values, including the importance of certain holidays. Effects in video chats, such as the on-screen drawing tools in Messenger Kids, create playful situations that can foster a connection with distant relatives.

Second, the application requires parents to choose who their child can video chat or message. Concerned guardians can also always check messages, which cannot be deleted. And the free app does not feature any advertisements. Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, and co-signer of the letter organized by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, admitted these features are positive steps.

Lastly, the app can help mitigate the problem of unsupervised children on social media. Facebook, like most interactive online services, prohibits children 13 and younger from using its site to comply with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), a federal law on children’s digital privacy that has limited the availability of child-oriented apps and sites. But, as of 2011, as many as 7.5 million underage Americans were lying about their age to use Facebook, often with their parents’ approval but without their supervision. By creating a platform that complies with COPPA, Facebook is able to increase parental control and oversight of their children’s use of social media.

A conversation about how much screen time children engage in is appropriate—too much of anything is bad—and certainly researchers should continue to study how to design and improve apps to most benefit children. If parents want to limit screen time, there are many products available to manage access to their child’s device, including many features built into most mobile operating systems. But it would be a mistake to allow Messenger Kids to become the next casualty in the campaign for an innovation-free childhood.