FACEBOOK SAYS IT built Messenger Kids, a new version of its popular communications app with parental controls, to help safeguard pre-teens who may be using unauthorized and unsupervised social-media accounts. Critics think Facebook is targeting children as young as 6 to hook them on its services. Facebook’s goal is to “push down the age” of when it’s acceptable for kids to be on social media, says Josh Golin, executive director of Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood. Golin says 11-to-12-year-olds who already have a Facebook account, probably because they lied about their age, might find the animated emojis and GIFs of Messenger Kids “too babyish,” and are unlikely to convert to the new app. Facebook launched Messenger Kids for 6-to-12-year olds in the US Monday, saying it took extraordinary care and precautions. The company said its 100-person team building apps for teens and kids consulted with parent groups, advocates, and childhood-development experts during the 18-month development process and the app reflects their concerns. Parents download Messenger Kids on their child’s account, after verifying their identity by logging into Facebook. Since kids cannot be found in search, parents must initiate and respond to friend requests. Facebook says Messenger Kids will not display ads, nor collect data on kids for advertising purposes. Kids’ accounts will not automatically be rolled into Facebook accounts once they turn 13. Nonetheless, advocates focused on marketing to children expressed concerns. The company will collect the content of children’s messages, photos they send, what features they use on the app, and information about the device they use. Facebook says it will use this information to improve the app and will share the information “within the family of companies that are part of Facebook,” and outside companies that provide customer support, analysis, and technical infrastructure. “It’s all that squishy language that we normally see in privacy policies,” says Golin. “It seems to give Facebook a lot of wiggle room to share this information.” He says Facebook should be clearer about the outsiders with which it may share data. In response to questions from WIRED, a spokesperson for Facebook said: “It’s important to remember that Messenger Kids does not have ads and we don’t use the data for advertising. This provision about sharing information with vendors from the privacy policy is for things like providing infrastructure to deliver messages.” Kristen Strader, campaign coordinator for the nonprofit group Public Citizen, says Facebook has proven it cannot be trusted with youth data in the past, pointing to a leaked Facebook report from May that promised advertisers the ability to track teen emotions, such as insecurity, in real-time. “Their response was just that they will not do similar experiments in the future,” says Strader. At the time, advocacy groups asked for a copy of the report, but Facebook declined. RECOMMENDED DAVID PIERCE YouTube’s Quest to Make TV Work Everywhere ADRIENNE SO Review: Amazon Fire HD 8 Kids Edition ELIZABETH STINSON All the Face-Tracking Tech Behind Apple’s Animoji Tech companies have made a much more aggressive push into targeting younger users, a strategy that began in earnest in 2015 when Google launched YouTube Kids, which includes advertising. Parents create an account for their child through Google’s Family Link, a product to help parents monitor screentime. FamilyLink is also used for parents who want to start an account for their kid on Google Home, which gets matched to their child’s voice. “There is no way a company can really close its doors to kids anymore,” says Jeffrey Chester, executive director for the Center of Digital Democracy. “By openly commercializing young children’s digital media use, Google has lowered the bar,” he says, pointing to what toy company Mattel described as “an eight-figure deal” that it signed with YouTube in August. Chester says services such as YouTube Kids and Messenger Kids are designed to capture the attention, and affinity, of the youngest users. “If they are weaned on Google and Facebook, you have socialized them to use your service when they become an adult,” he says. “On the one hand it’s diabolical and on the other hand it’s how corporations work.” In past years, tech companies avoided targeting younger users because of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection ACT (COPPA), a law that requires parental permission in order to collect data on children under 13. But, “the weakness of COPPA is that you can do a lot of things if you get parental permission,” says Golin. In the past six months, new apps have launched marketed as parent helpers. “What they’re saying is this is great way for parents to have control, what they are getting is parental permission,” says Golin. Several children-focused nonprofit groups endorsed Facebook’s approach, including ConnectSafely and Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI). Both groups have received funding from Facebook. A Facebook spokesperson says, “We have long-standing relationships with some of these groups and we’ve been transparent about those relationships.” The spokesperson says many backers of Facebook’s approach, including Kristelle Lavallee of the Center on Media and Child Health, and Dr. Kevin Clark of George Mason University’s Center for Digital Media Innovation and Diversity, do not receive support from Facebook.


LET’S FACE IT: the internet can be a nasty place. Between predators, malware, explicit content, and other bad actors, parents can find themselves in a never ending cycle of doom and gloom as they try to fend off every threat their kids might face online.

It’s a tricky situation without a perfect solution, and it can be tough to know where to start. There are parental blocks, antivirus software, kid friendly browsers, and the temptation to avoid the stress and ban the internet altogether. But Dave Lewis, a global security advocate at Akamai Technologies, says the most important thing actually has nothing to do with technology: it’s all about having an open conversation with your kids.

The framing of that conversation is key, Lewis says. When you’re talking with your children about the dangers of the internet, you should be engaging and non-confrontational. “Kids really are information sponges, so if you package it in a way that makes them feel like they’re learning something, you’ll get a better return on that investment,” he says.

Instead of throwing down all of the scary things that can happen once they log on, Lewis suggests parents act as positive guardians, putting the right tools in place to keep their kids safe while also teaching them how to do it themselves. That means being aware of where your children should be going at their age, which he says is important as kids become tech savvy earlier. “There’s no reason for a kid around seven to have a Facebook or Twitter account,” he says, “They don’t need that level of exposure to the world, they still need a chance to be kids.” (It’s also against Facebook’s Terms of Service.)

Kids also need to be aware of the dangers of responding to messages from strangers, and Lewis suggests parents ensure kids feel safe coming to their parents with concerns about those things, so they feel comfortable letting an authority navigate that situation in a safer manner. This is going to be even more important as more companies make products specifically for kids, like Facebook’s trying to do with its new Messenger Kids.

Once that part’s covered, there are some specific tools Lewis suggests parents take advantage of before handing the reins to their kiddos. First comes setting up parental controls and filters: You can use software like Net Nanny and Qustodio to block out the web’s nastiest sites, as well as control how much screen time the kiddos get each day. If you’re really concerned about what your kids are doing on the internet, you can even block certain domains at the router level. And if you’re not ready to spend some dough on more heavy software, iOS and Android both offer parental controls to keep kids safe on the go.

Basic security tools are important, too. Lewis suggests installing a firewall and antivirus software on computers, as well as ensuring that you’re up to date on software patches. The safer your computer is, the safer your kids will be. He also says keeping your computer in an open space can help ensure that your kids aren’t heading anywhere they shouldn’t be, and that you’re available for any questions they might have.

You can also turn on some cautionary settings in individual apps. In Snapchat, for example, you can set “Who Can Contact Me” to “My Friends” to block out strangers. In Facebook, lock down their account to control who can see their profile and all of their posts. On Instagram, turn on “Private Account” to keep prying eyes from seeing what your kids are up to.

Can parental controls protect your kids completely? Absolutely not. The nastiness of the internet will always try to find its way onto your kid’s screens. But if you follow Lewis’s advice, hopefully you’ll get a little closer to parental zen.

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