Facebook Messenger is coming to an elementary school near you.
Facebook is releasing a new version of Messenger, its standalone messaging app, specifically for users under the age of 13 — those who are too young to use Facebook due to the site’s age restrictions.
The new app is called Messenger Kids, and Facebook is billing it as a way for preteens to safely communicate with parents and friends. That’s because kids can’t create a Messenger Kids account — or add any new contacts — without parental approval.
If a kid wants to chat with a friend from school, for example, her parent would need to be Facebook friends with a parent of the other child, and the two parents would need to agree to a connection request.
The point is to give kids a messaging app that isn’t tied to a phone number, and that won’t lead to messages from people the child doesn’t know.
Of course, getting preteens onto Messenger has one other major benefit: It offers Facebook a chance to get in front of the youngest generation of internet users before potential competitors. Facebook is losing some of its teen users to other apps, like Snapchat or Instagram — luckily, Facebook owns Instagram — which is one reason Facebook must like the idea Messenger Kids. It’s easy to imagine how a 10-year-old who uses Messenger Kids and creates a network of contacts on service will eventually graduate to regular Messenger, and likely Facebook.
In a press briefing with reporters to unveil the new product, Facebook didn’t talk much about that benefit. Instead, the company stressed that it is taking security for Messenger Kids very seriously. In addition to needing a parent to create an account and add new contacts, kids cannot delete any messages, and parents are notified any time a kid reports a message. (All reports are handled by humans, the company said.)
The hope is this will help parents monitor for issues related to bullying or abuse.
The company claims that it spent the past six months talking with hundreds of parents in focus groups to understand the kinds of concerns and needs they have when it comes to letting their young children communicate online.
“It’s really hard to keep the control over who [kids] communicate with, how they communicate, what tools are at their disposal,” said David Marcus, head of Facebook Messenger. “This is what we’re going to address and fix.”
Still, Facebook’s decision to build products specifically for preteens puts the company in an interesting new sphere of responsibility. Ensuring that adults who use Facebook are safe from abuse or contact from unwanted strangers can be difficult. Doing that for children will certainly put Messenger under a new microscope.
A few other things to know about the new app:
- Creating a Messenger Kids account is not the same as creating a Facebook account. Facebook only requires a first and last name for a Messenger Kids account, and any other data collected from the account is kept separately from Facebook’s other user data, the company claims.
- Messenger Kids accounts are not automatically converted into Facebook accounts when children turn 13.
- Messenger Kids won’t include any advertisements.
- Parents won’t need to download a separate app. They can communicate with Messenger Kids users through their existing Messenger app.
- There will not be a searchable database of Messenger Kids users. Parents will only be able to see Messenger Kids accounts connected to their own Facebook friends.
Messenger Kids is available on iOS in the U.S. only. The company says an Android and Kindle version of the app are coming next year.