Facebook is expanding its kids-only version of its popular chatting app, Messenger, to Canada even as some child online safety advocates are demanding the social media company shut it down in the U.S.
The Silicon Valley giant made Messenger for Kids, a standalone chatting app for children under the age of 13, available in Canada on Friday.
The app is targeted mainly to children between the ages of 7 and 12 and is designed to run on tablets and connect kids with a few close friends and family members through texts and video chats.
Facebook said it built the app with several safety features. Parents will be able to control the app through their own Facebook accounts, including approving the people their children can contact and deciding whether to cut off their children’s access to the app at certain times of the day.
The app will also be ad-free and won’t use children’s data to market to either children or their parents. It uses technology to block children from uploading inappropriate content, such as photos with nudity. Kids can also easily block people they are connected to and Messenger will send an alert to parents if their child flags inappropriate content or messages.
The company said it launched Messenger for Kids in the U.S. after feedback from parents who wanted a safe way to keep in touch with their children. But child-safety advocates have raised concerns about Facebook targeting young children with social media technology.
Earlier this year, more than 100 physicians and public-health advocates wrote an open letter calling on Facebook to shut down Messenger for Kids. The concerns came amid a mounting backlash against Facebook for enabling foreign election interference and data-privacy issues.
In the letter, spearheaded by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, advocates pointed to research on the downsides of technology, such as smartphone addiction, links between overuse of technology and depression in teens, and privacy concerns.
“A growing body of research demonstrates that excessive use of digital devices and social media is harmful to children and teens, making it very likely this new app will undermine children’s healthy development,” the letter said.
The organizers recently launched a petition signed by 21,000 people urging Facebook to discontinue the app.
Facebook’s global head of safety Antigone Davis said in an interview that the company takes such concerns seriously.
The company held meetings with groups of parents before building the app and consulted an advisory board of dozens of experts in child psychology and development and mental health, including Canadian media literacy non-profit MediaSmarts. It also briefed the federal Privacy Commissioner’s office before launching the product in Canada.
Parents are already giving their children smartphones, but they wanted to have more control over how their children used technology, Ms. Davis said.
A kid-safe chat app would also let parents teach their children online safety skills at an age when they’re still young enough to listen to their parents, Ms. Davis said. “Certainly that’s easier to do when your child is not 13 and already starting to roll their eyeballs at you and not wanting to listen.”
Today’s launches in Canada and Peru mark the first expansion of Messenger for Kids outside the U.S. Ms. Davis declined to specify how many parents have already downloaded the app for their children in the U.S.