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New Facebook Messenger Kids Update Promises to Be ‘Tech With Training Wheels’

There are so many different ways to try to raise a kid to be safe and happy in the age of social media. Your level of protectiveness can range from banning technology altogether to giving them all the devices and hoping for the best. Facebook has put forth a choice that the brand is claiming is a middle ground: an updated version of its Messenger Kids app, which its product manager calls “tech with training wheels.”

On Tuesday, Facebook announced that the updated Messenger Kids would come with a Parents Dashboard that gives parents much more control over their children’s use of the app. From their own devices, parents can now approve their kids’ contacts, view their blocking and reporting activity, see what images and videos they’ve shared with others, log them out of accounts and download records of their complete chatting activity.

“What we’re rolling out is a bunch of new parent control features, giving parents more insight and more control so they can customize the Messenger Kids experience in a way that’s appropriate for their family,” Morgan Brown, Facebook’s project manager for Messenger Kids, told SheKnows.

Since Messenger Kids launched in 2017, it’s been a mixed bag for parents. Some wondered why we needed to get children ages 6 to 12 hooked on messaging each other. The initial answer was that kids were already using other apps to do this, so they might as well use one in which their parents could monitor their contacts. It certainly became a nice way for kids to chat with their grandparents and other out-of-state family members using funny masks and stickers.

Another worry some had was that Facebook was planning to exploit young users, selling their information or luring them onto other money-making platforms, since Messenger Kids is itself ad-free. There were also security concerns, which seemed to be confirmed last July when Facebook revealed that people parents hadn’t approved as contacts could still reach their kids through group chats.

The new update is one of the ways the company hopes to reassure everyone. And while parents used to have to use their child’s device to see their chatting history, now they can do it on their own. (Kids will get a notification that this is happening, by the way.)

Brown and Antigone Davis, Facebook’s global head of safety, told SheKnows that Facebook wants this app to be a fun way to teach kids how to use tech responsibly. It begins by asking both parent and child to agree to be kind, be respectful, be safe and have fun while using the device.

“When the parent signs the child up, there’s a pledge, and it actually gives the parents an opportunity to talk about what expectations they have with their child,” Davis told SheKnows. “I think that’s a much easier conversation to have when your child is, say, between the ages of 7 and 12, than it is to have at that moment when your child is 13.”

Davis pointed to the way the app allows kids to block and unblock friends. Because parents can see this happening, they can look for patterns in their child’s behavior. Then they can have a conversation about whether it’s a case of friends just being moody with each other or there’s some kind of bullying going on.

But what’s in it for Facebook? TechCrunch pointed out this week that the app’s privacy policy does warn parents that the company will be collecting personal data from their kids as they use it. That’s necessary to make product improvements, but yeah, Facebook does have a reputation for using our data for more than that. Still, Davis’ summation of the company’s motives also sounds rather convincing.

“Facebook is better off if families and kids actually know how to responsibly use technology, and if parents and kids actually have a fun way to communicate and build toward real digital competency,” she said.

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