Facebook has a new messaging app, aimed at young children.  It is called Messenger Kids and allows users under the age of 13 and as young as 6 to send texts, photos and videos.  They can also draw on the pictures they send and add stickers.

Recently launched in the US the app gives Facebook access to a whole new market whose age prohibits them from using the company’s main social network.  Facebook say that data collection will be limited and children will need parent’s permission to use it.

Messenger Kids is Facebook’s first foray into a product aimed specifically at young children and once again puts it at the heart of the debate about how and when children should start their online lives.

Facebook say Messenger Kids is a result of consultation with several children’s advocates including the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children and with hundreds of parents.

Antigone Davis, Head of global safety for Facebook said that the company took many cues from these conversations. Parental permission is required to sign up for the app, she said. If two children want to be friends with each other, each will have to get parental approval for contact. “It’s just like setting up a play date,” Davis said.

So, why now?  The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act requires companies targeting children under 13 to take extra steps to safeguard privacy and security – particularly around advertising, as children may not understand what is and is not an ad. Tech companies have been complying with the COPPA laws for years by not allowing under 13s to have accounts. But now, with ever more technology creeping deeper into our homes and lives, children have become an attractive market.

“It’s a very lucrative market; companies want to capture these people, these children, so they can keep them throughout their lives,” said Kathryn Montgomery, a communications professor at American University and one of the main advocates who helped get COPPA passed.

Several major tech firms have recently released products that allow younger children to use their services within the limits of the kids’ privacy law — and reach more of the country’s (US) 48.8 million children under the age of 13 in the process. Google in March introduced “Family Link,” which allowed parents to set up kid-friendly Google Accounts. Amazon has also added kid-focused “skills” to its Echo smart speakers, which require a parent’s permission to activate.

Davis said that Facebook spoke with the Federal Trade Commission to ensure that the app is compliant with COPPA. The FTC did not respond to a request for comment.

Last year in 2017 Facebook acquired ‘tbh,’ an app that allows teens to send anonymous compliments to each other, to enable them to tap into a younger generation market that they have been losing.

Facebook say that parents they consulted told them they did not want a full social network, but had more interest in a communications tool.

Facebook said that Messenger Kids will have no ads. It will also not use data from Messenger Kids for Facebook ads. (Parents shouldn’t, for example, see an ad for a toy on Facebook because their child talked about it on Messenger Kids.) The firm said no data from Messenger Kids will be fed to the main social network, nor will their information automatically port to other Facebook products when they turn 13, the company said.

The new app doesn’t create an account for kids; parents are asked to provide only their child’s name. Parents have to use their Facebook email address and password to activate their child’s account, but that does not log a parent into their child’s device. However, per the app’s privacy policy,

However, Facebook also collects information on the content of messages and reserves the right to share information with other firms as necessary — such as customer service providers or companies that can help it analyse how the app is being used. These companies must also have their own privacy policies to protect children, the app’s privacy policy said. Davis said that if a parent decides to delete their child’s account, Facebook will also delete any data from its own servers.

This focus on younger children has raised alarm bells for many, Jim Steyer, executive director of Common Sense Media said, “We appreciate that for now, the product is ad-free and appears designed to put parents in control. But why should parents simply trust that Facebook is acting in the best interest of kids?”

The Family Online Safety Institute recently did a study that found that parents are more sceptical of the benefits of social media for their children then they are of smartphones or even wearable devices.

Kathryn Montgomery, the communications professor at American University also said Facebook has been careful to comply with the law. But, she also warned, many products that start as non-commercial can change over time.

“New aspects of the product will emerge,” she said, in her role as a senior consultant for the Centre for Digital Democracy. “I think we’re at an interesting moment, and there are a lot of moves into that marketplace.”

The app launches on Apple’s App Store first. Facebook plans to release Android and Amazon versions next year. The company has no plans to release a similar kids-only platform for its other main social network, Instagram.

Larry Magid, chief executive of the non-profit ConnectSafely.org, one of many organizations Facebook briefed on the product ahead of its launch, said Facebook’s approach may encourage companies to create safer, more limited and legally compliant services for kids, (The group receives funding from Facebook as well as Google, Kik and other companies that have messaging products.)

“The reality is that kids are going to go use apps if they’re under 13,” he said. “The question becomes: Do we simply ban them and fight a losing fight?”

Here in the UK, the government’s agreed to an amendment, last December, to the Data Protection Bill, based on child protection proposals put forward by Baroness Kidron. The bill is part of the impending data privacy legislation in the EU, expected to have far reaching consequences for tech firms in Europe.

The average child gets their first phone by age 10 and uses it for an average of 4.5 hours a day. And consequently, Apple have been urged by the hedge fund, ‘Jana Partners’ and also the ‘California State Teachers Retirement System,’ one of the largest US pension funds, to build new controls into its devices to make it easier for parents to control usage. They said, “It is both unrealistic and a poor long-term business strategy to ask parents to fight this battle alone.:

And the last word goes to Jim Steyer, the executive director of Common Sense Media who said recently “Tech companies are conducting a massive real-time experiment on our kids and, at present, no one is really holding them accountable.’