It’s hard to think of a single good thing to say about the news that Facebook has developed a new app aimed at children. Messenger Kids, currently being trialled in the US, is targeted at those aged between six and thirteen. That’s right, six. So probably not wholly secure with tying shoe laces, reading the hands on a clock, brushing teeth, holding a pencil, riding a bike or doing up the buttons on a coat. But hey, who cares? Old school skills. So very yesterday. We need to train children to live in the world of the future, and the one of today, right now, where Mark Zuckerberg can keep trousering a bit more to add to however many tens of billions of dollars he’s now worth. Not that one wants to be cynical. Not that one wants to suspect he won’t have his own toddlers tapping on to little screens before they’re potty-trained. It’s such an appalling idea that it can only be about greed or ignorance or both.
The children’s charity Barnardo’s claimed this week that the app could expose children to grooming, sexting, and online bullying. Chief executive Javed Khan said they were not convinced about the stringency of controls Facebook asserts it has in place, adding that not all parents felt confident about managing their children’s accounts. ‘We understand how difficult it can be to spot whether a profile is genuine or a potential danger,’ he said. Exactly. Like parents don’t have enough to do. Like parents have got time constantly to be monitoring that their child hasn’t accidentally strayed into the path of a paedophile.
Barnardo’s commissioned a YouGov survey about Messenger Kids, which allows communication either in groups or one to one, using text messages, video calls or photos, and of 997 parents 90 per cent said they were concerned about their youngsters using the new app.
Facebook’s head of global safety, Antigone Davis, claims there are systems built in to detect ‘things like nudity, violence, and child-exploitative imagery to help limit that content from being shared on Messenger Kids’. Note that word ‘limit’. Not block or prevent? Just a little bit, then, of the foul things we don’t want coming into teenagers’ lives via their phones possibly coming into the lives of much younger children? What parent in their right mind would think this is the way to go?
Davis counters that there has been feedback ‘that parents using the app in the US feel that it’s a safer alternative to let their kids chat with family and friends when they can’t be together in person’. Really? Well, here’s a novel idea: if children want to ‘chat’ (Davis’s word), how about letting them tap in the phone number of grandparents or schoolfriends and do that old-fashioned thing we all used to do? Actually talk? Using actual voices, using that beautiful thing – speech – that distinguishes us as humans (Check out Tom Wolfe’s The Kingdom of Speech) from anything else that has ever lived.
The great lie about social media is that it connects us. It doesn’t. It disconnects. It isn’t social, but anti-social. It makes us vain, boastful, narcissistic, puts us on transmit as in ‘here I am looking terrific, in a terrific place, generally doing terrific things in my terrific life’. Nobody is saying that six-year-olds will be doing this, but Facebook knows full well that if it can get them young, hook them on devices when they’ve barely started school, by the time they’re in their early teens then they, too, will have thin, impoverished, merely virtual lives. Sitting alone in their bedrooms. And they won’t know how to live any other way. Mental health problems in the young arising from the use of social media are now well documented.
Certainly, these dangers regarding Messenger Kids have been flagged up early in the US. Almost 100 child health experts have written to Zuckerberg highlighting the app’s potential risks and asking for it to be withdrawn. They fear it could undermine healthy development in primary-age children by increasing the amount of time they spend online. It is important to keep saying this: the problem with the young and social media is not just about their needing to avoid bullying or contact with the warped and predatory, but that in its addictive nature it simply displaces so much else in life that is important. Paramount here are our relationships. Interaction with family and friends and those who might become friends (real as opposed to virtual), face to face and voice to voice (and increasing in confidence and enjoyment with this) has been seriously impacted by social media use. Many of the young nowadays don’t actually much like communicating anything other than by messaging.
It goes pretty much without saying that the younger one lets children get hold of devices, the more harm will be done to early language acquisition. There will be less and less interest in books, in stories, in becoming (better) readers, and this will be detrimental to long-term academic outcomes. Reading as one of life’s pleasures? Forget it. There will be less inclination to engage in active physical play, which is all the country needs right now, in the grip of an obesity crisis. There will be less temptation to look at the world with the kind of wonder and engagement that only a child has. What a shame – to have missed the fleeting chance to see anything with a child’s-eye view because you were too absorbed with a little device.
Messenger Kids is a deplorable and cynical development. Social media has not made the lives of today’s young better, it has made their lives worse, more lonely and more anxious, with many of them probably wishing they had grown up in a previous era. The very last thing the world needs now is an app for infants. Facebook should be ashamed of itself.