A new Facebook chat app, Messenger Kids, aimed at children aged six to 12, is raising concern among legislators and children's groups over data privacy and safety. They are concerned over the information that children will share and where that information will end up.
While privacy is a valid concern, they’re missing an arguably more worrisome problem. Today’s technology is turning people - especially kids - into “tech-addicted zombies” … “oblivious to the world around them,” as my recent article describes. This should be a greater worry to parents and the public at large, in my view.
The reason for my concern is that the privacy issue for kids is less of a threat to them than becoming further disconnected. Facebook maintains than an account can only be set up by a parent, who must also add any contacts for their child. It has also pledged not to advertise to children within the app or sell any data it collects. The company even promises not to try to recruit the kids to regular Facebook users once they reach age 12. This would seem to cover privacy worries for most, though lawmakers want Facebook to go further.
Last week, Democratic Senators Ed Markey (Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) contacted Facebook seeking more assurances about the collection of kids’ data, despite the firm’s pledge that it wouldn’t send or sell any data to third-party advertisers. Their letter said,
“We remain concerned about where sensitive information collected through this app could end up and for what purpose it could be used. Facebook needs to provide assurances that this ‘walled garden’ service they describe is fully protective of children.”
The Senators’ concerns are not misplaced or exaggerated. Facebook’s policy pertaining to new accounts doesn’t preclude it from using the data it collects from kids for “intra-house” use within its own family of companies. In this regard, the lawmakers’ fears are echoed by a children’s advocacy group and media editor at Common Sense Media, Christine Elgersma. She worries about the collection of data because,
“It (policy statement) is not overtly stated, but everything a kid is doing is stored and perhaps used in the development of future projects at Facebook.”
Her other concerns begin to drift a bit further afield from privacy and more toward the worries I expressed above. She opines that the new Facebook thrust is really aimed at pulling kids into the company's other products:
“The hope is that is because they’re already ensconced in Facebook, they’ll just continue and open an account."
Jeffrey Chester, the executive director for a privacy and children’s advocacy group, the Center for Digital Democracy, really nails this point, while also bolstering my premise when he points out that,
"This is an attempt to create a feature that will help Facebook win over young people and keep their parents tied to the site.”
Now we’re getting closer to the bigger, more ominous threat facing children - recruiting them into the “attention economy.” This has the potential to perhaps damage their precious brains.
Children already run the risk of being exposed to technology at too young an age. Child psychology researcher Jean Twenge recently wrote about the danger of children not engaging in other wholesome activities because they are transfixed by technology. Twenge co-authored a study published in November that found teenagers who spent more time on social media were more likely to be depressed than those who were engaged in other activities. The research posited that this “may account for the increases in depression and suicide” among youngsters.
Sean Parker, the 37-year old entrepreneur and short-lived former CEO of Facebook, shed further light on this issue of obsession and technology's all-consuming race to capture attention. He wondered, “God only knows what it is doing to our children’s brains.”
Instagram, another Facebook-owned app “was found to have the worst impact on youngsters’ self-esteem, negatively impacting people's body image, sleep, and fear of missing out... The thought process that went into building these applications, Facebook being the first of them, ... was all about: 'How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?" according to Parker.
Facebook’s Messenger Kids looks like more than just a ploy to fatten the bottom line. It appears to be an attempt to cultivate the “zombies” of the future. While children should be playing and learning the social skills that will shape their adult lives, they will instead become introverted acolytes of technology and withdraw to mindless chatter.
Opinions are the writer's own.