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Common Sense Media: A parent’s ultimate guide to Messenger Kids

Common Sense Media
July03/ 2020

By Caroline Knorr

Facebook’s Messenger Kids is social media for kids who’ve outgrown toy smartphones but aren’t quite ready for the real thing. What they really want is Instagram and Snapchat so they can act just like the big kids. While Messenger Kids can be used safely (parents can see everything kids do, control their settings, and even remotely shut down the app), Facebook does collect user data, and the company clearly has a big stake in training young users for grown-up social media. Learn more about the pros and cons of Messenger Kids to determine whether it’s right for your kid.

What is Messenger Kids? 

Messenger Kids is a free messaging app created by Facebook aimed at kids under 13. It works a lot like regular Facebook Messenger, but parents are the gatekeepers: You manage all the settings (such as notifications) through the Messenger Kids module in your Facebook account. Unlike grown-up Messenger, Kids doesn’t have stories (picture collages uploaded by friends), but it does offer many more photo filters (unicorns, aliens, stinky fish), and it has a few games.

How does Messenger Kids work?

Parents must have their own Facebook account to set up Messenger Kids. Once you download the Messenger Kids app and log in, you can add contacts for your kid through your own account or opt into the Supervised Friending feature, which lets kids choose their own contacts (you still get notified of new contacts your kid adds). Supervised Friending also allows for more visibility within the app to help kids find friends more easily. To create your kid’s profile, you add their name (it can be a nickname), provide an image (which can be anything), and choose whether to add their gender and birth date. Kids can use the app either on their own device or on yours, but remember: If kids use Messenger Kids on your phone, they’ll have access to all the photos and videos on your device.

What can kids do on Messenger Kids? 

Once they have contacts, kids can send text, photos, videos, audio files, and GIFs. They can add filters, similar to Snapchat, and spend lots of time decorating photos and videos, playing with filters, and drawing things to send to friends. They can also create group chats (which you don’t need to approve) and make video calls.

How do I set parental controls on Messenger Kids?

Facebook gives you a Parent Dashboard in your Facebook account (click or tap the Messenger icon and then your kid’s name), where you can view almost everything you want to see (kids can’t delete anything they do, so you have access to all of it), including a list of recent contacts, recent images and videos shared in chats, a chat history, and a list of reported and blocked contacts. You can also enable Sleep mode, which prevents kids from using the app during set times. The Facebook app offers a few more controls in the Dashboard, such as the ability to turn your kid’s online status on and off, than the desktop version.

One thing you have no control over or insight into is video chats. Kids can say or show anything they want to (and you won’t be able to review it), unless you’re around to keep an eye on things.

What age is Messenger Kids OK for?

Though Facebook designed the app for kids age 6–12, based on privacy best practices and overall recommendations for social media use, we’ve rated Facebook Messenger Kids for age 13+ for independent use. But with careful parental setup and oversight — and limited amounts of time spent using it — it can be a fun way for younger kids to connect with family and friends.

Is my kids’ data safe on Messenger Kids? Is mine?

Though there are no ads or purchases, Facebook may send kids surveys to respond to. Facebook’s privacy policy states that it collects and stores the content of the messages sent by kids and also monitors their app usage (like whom they contact most). Exactly what happens to that data and how secure it is is anyone’s guess, as Facebook shares data across its different platforms and says it uses all data, including kids’, to improve its products. In theory, your kids’ data could follow them to Instagram, WhatsApp, and other Facebook products throughout their entire lives. In our official privacy evaluation, Messenger Kids received a warning rating because it doesn’t meet our minimum requirements for privacy and security practices.

Can a stranger contact my kid on Messenger Kids?

It’s unlikely, but it has happened. In 2019, a flaw in the app — which was corrected — allowed kids to join group chats with people who weren’t pre-approved. Just like Facebook, the app’s goal is to connect as many people as possible, and in your dashboard, you’ll see lots of potential friends Facebook offers up for you to connect your kid to (including the names of all your friends who have Messenger Kids accounts for their own kids).

It’s entirely possible you could approve a stranger posing as a kid because you thought it was a friend. There may be other flaws in Facebook’s privacy system that haven’t yet been detected. An update to the app that launched in April 2020 in response to shelter-in-place restrictions offers parents the option to allow adults, such as a teacher or coach, to add your kid to a group, such as a class or club, which might include kids and adults your kid doesn’t know. You can opt into this feature or approve requests on a case-by-case basis.

What are the alternatives to Messenger Kids?

Check out our list of Safe Chat Rooms and Social Sites for Kids to find recommendations for alternatives to Messenger Kids. Some products are more geared toward families staying in touch, and some are more game-oriented. Video-chatting through your device’s built-in system is another option for keeping kids connected.

But before your kids register for any of them, be sure to refer to our social media hub to get answers and recommendations for all your chatting concerns.

Is Messenger Kids safe?

Because parents approve and add all the contacts, it’s relatively low-risk in terms of chatting with strangers or encountering really iffy content.

Some of the risks are common to all social media. Kids — and their contacts — can take pictures of anything, download photos and videos to their camera roll, and share them, so there’s no guarantee that everything shared will be kid-appropriate or stay inside the app. And, while kids are able to block and report other kids, they can be invited to a group chat that includes a blocked contact (they still can’t communicate one-on-one).

As for whether or not it’s healthy for young kids to use social media, that’s an open question. While you can certainly see its benefit in keeping kids connected to far-flung relatives and friends — especially during extended periods of being home from school — research on how social media affects kids’ mental health is ongoing and inconclusive. Some researchers warn that tween girls in particular are vulnerable to the social comparison that happens on social media and that prolonged use can contribute to anxiety. But if you’re monitoring your kid’s use of Messenger Kids carefully, you may be able to avoid these issues or spot them early.

How can my kid use Messenger Kids safely?

If Messenger Kids is used as training wheels with lots of parent interaction and discussion, there could be some benefit in getting kids ready for the full-fledged social apps. Regular check-ins with your kid on how they’re doing and what their social media interactions are like, as well as observing behavior, can help keep their social media use fun and positive. Finally, if you allow your kid to use Messenger Kids, pay attention to updates to Facebook’s privacy policy. These announcements could mean significant changes to your control over your kid’s use of the app.

Common Sense Media

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