These days, parents trying to keep their kids safe must worry not just about bike helmets and cars speeding down streets, but online predators and ads targeting kids.
Facebook clearly had these parental worries in mind when they rolled out Messenger Kids, which does not include ads and allows parents to control their kids’ contact list. The press release, with its pictures of kids trying on Snapchat-eque dog filters, implicitly argues that the app is squeaky-clean fun.
In terms of ads and contacts, it could be. However, it’s also yet another temptation for our kids to spend hours looking at a screen — and that might not be particularly safe for their mental health. In this context, Facebook isn’t a problem in and of itself. But by tailoring an app to children, the social media giant is making it that much easier for children to become addicted to an ever-increasing number of screens (while also converting them into loyal users at an earlier and earlier age).
Putting aside the potential business implications, the potential health consequences of Messenger Kids should not be overlooked. In a recent study, my colleagues and I found that teens who spend 5 or more hours a day on electronic devices are 71% more likely to have at least one risk factor for suicide such as depression, thinking about suicide, making a suicide plan, or having attempted suicide in the past. As I found in my recent book, “iGen,” that might be one reason why depression, anxiety and suicide suddenly increased among teens around 2012, just when smartphones became popular.
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