Ignoring all available evidence that screen time and social media exposure can be harmful to kids, Facebook recently unveiled a new messaging app targeting children under 13. Itís yet another battlefront for parents who have to constantly combat the addictive lure of the little glowing screen. As Facebook and other media and technology companies clamor to draw more users at a younger age, they have an obligation to acknowledge the potential for harm and work to help mitigate it.
The app is called Messenger Kids, promoted as a way for young children to send messages and photos and chat with social connections approved by their parents. The company touts parental controls and a ban on advertising in claiming the service is benign. But it asks parents to enter their childrenís real names, and it gathers data on how families interact with the app. Most social media apps, including Facebookís, require users to be 13 or older to comply with a federal law protecting kidsí privacy. Despite Facebookís claim that Messenger Kids offers a controlled environment walled off from the dangers of the wider internet, itís still a dubious invitation to get kids hooked on screens younger and younger.
The impact of heavy smartphone use by teenagers and preteens is only beginning to be understood. But the emerging picture of the potential consequences ó low self-esteem, depression, obesity ó is deeply concerning. And make no mistake: The sophisticated engineers at Google, Facebook and Apple havenít cultivated hundreds of millions of customers by luck. Facebookís founding president, Sean Parker, acknowledged last year that the social network is "exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology" to hold usersí attention by creating a feedback loop of likes and comments. "It probably interferes with productivity in weird ways," Parker said, adding, "God only knows what itís doing to our childrenís brains." That should hardly be reassuring to parents.
Apple was recently drawn into the wider debate when two major shareholders wrote an open letter encouraging the company to take a larger role in protecting kids from the effects of digital technology. The investment groups, which hold about $2 billion in Apple stock, argued Apple should convene experts, commission research, strengthen parental controls in its devices and educate parents. Apple and Facebook arenít RJ Reynolds, but thereís some similarity to the argument that tobacco companies should help treat and prevent the conditions caused by cigarette smoking.
Determining the boundaries of kidsí interaction with technology is ultimately the responsibility of parents. But itís not a decision made in isolation ó classroom assignments are now commonly done on tablets. By marketing to young people, and certainly profiting from them, digital companies should be accountable for the effects their products have on kidsí physical and mental health.