What is Facebook's Messenger Kids - and is it safe?

Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto
Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto 

Lockdown has seen kids messaging apps aimed at under-12s flood the market. 

Not only do parents need to know which ones are safe, they also have to teach their kids to navigate the world of messaging, often for the first time.

Technology commentator Geoff Quattromani said while there were a large number of apps which children could use to socialise in a safe way, parents should be cautious about having them join apps that connect by simply having their phone number or username. 

"Look for apps that link to a parent account for contact approval and pay close attention to the reviews of each app before downloading," Mr Quattromani said. 

"Teaching your kids how to be safe, be kind and respectful will set them up for their future, as messaging and texting won't be going away."

One messaging option that's recently taken off in recent months is Facebook's Messenger Kids. But what is it and is it safe?

Digital wellbeing and online safety educator Martine Oglethorpe said Messenger Kids is just one of a few new ways that kids under 12 were connecting.

"As many young people's social connections were taken away and their connections to school, sport, activities and play dates all became obsolete, there was certainly a void that technology and, in particular, some messaging apps were able to fill," Ms Oglethorpe, the author of The Modern Parent: Raising a great kid in the digital world, said. 

Photo: Facebook

Photo: Facebook

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"We know that connection and relationships are crucial to all of us and certainly to our kids. and these apps have become a way for young people to maintain those connections."

She said Messenger Kids, aimed at six to 12-year-olds, was new to Australia, however it has been around for a few years in other parts of the world. 

"This is a good thing for us as Facebook were able to iron out some of the kinks and address some of the safety concerns," she said.

"Kids can chat privately or in group chats and can play games, add stickers, filters and creative tools."  

To have an account, parents must have a Facebook account, but children do not need one. Parents can approve all friend requests, can see all messages, photos and videos shared. They can see when a child may have blocked someone and can block people themselves. Other safety features include sleep modes, a unique contact code to find friends and there are no in-app purchases. 

"It's certainly one of the safer apps out there in terms of connecting children with their friends due to the complete access that a parent must have," she said.

"Text and video messaging via iMessage can also be a safer alternative. 

"There are certainly many other apps out there and some obviously are much better than others. Checking reviews on commonsensemedia.org can always be a good way to check out the safety and appropriateness of an app for your child, but also have a good play with it yourself if this is something you are going to be sharing with a younger child."

While kids may also be using Zoom and Houseparty to connect with friends, these apps are not made for children and a parent should be monitoring this closely, setting up the chat and staying present while this was occurring. 

And it's important to talk to your kids about the dangers of being online.

"Certainly, at this time the messaging apps can provide much needed connection for children and can also be a time for parents to help teach them some of the skills they will need to interact with others online," she said.

"Like everything however, there are certainly downsides and an increase reporting of bullying, online predators and online abuse has been significant at this time. 

"There are also problems of exclusion, oversharing and young people having sensitive, disrespectful or inappropriate conversations that can harm young people's digital footprint."

She suggested some simple rules about online sharing parents should discuss with their children:

  • Be aware of your surroundings if it is a video chat and tell other members of the family when you are going 'live'.
  • Don't give away too much private information or pictures that you don't want shared with others who may not be your friends. 
  • Always re-read your messages to ensure your meaning is clear. For example, if you are joking about something make sure that is obvious, so people don't get offended. 
  • Always ask yourself - "Is there anyone in the world I don't want to see this message, photo or video?" If the answer is yes, then don't hit send. 
  • Simply, be kind to others.
  • Remind your children that they don't have to answer their friends' messages straight away. Their friends will get used to the fact that they answer at certain times when it is appropriate.