Courtesy of Facebook via AP
WASHINGTON — Facebook now has a messaging app for kids — its first product aimed at young children. It’s a way to court younger users, with their parents’ permission. It also puts the social network at the heart of the ongoing debate about how and when children should start using digital products.
The app, called Messenger Kids, allows users under the age of 13 to send texts, videos, and photos; they can draw on the pictures they send and add stickers. The app, launched Monday in the United States, gives the company access to a new market: children whose age prohibits them from using the firm’s main social network.
The new app was designed after consultation with hundreds of parents and several children’s advocates, such as the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Facebook said.
The company took many cues from these conversations, said Antigone Davis, head of global safety. Parental permission is required to sign up for the app. If two children want to be friends with each other, each will have to get parental approval. ‘‘It’s just like setting up a play date,’’ Davis said.
Parents have to use their Facebook e-mail address and password to activate their child’s account, but that does not log a parent into their child’s device. Facebook said it has also created privacy and security measures to give parents transparency and control over their kids’ online activities.
Facebook’s move is the latest from a tech behemoth to show how companies are confronting the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. The law 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.
For years, major tech firms such as Facebook complied with COPPA by not allowing those under 13 to have accounts. But with technology moving deeper into the home and many firms looking for more growth, children have become a more attractive market.
Major tech companies have recently released more products that allow children to engage within the limits of the privacy law — and that reach more of the country’s approximately 50 million children the age 13 in the process. Google in March introduced Family Link, which allows parents to set up kid-friendly Google accounts for children under 13. Amazon has added kid-focused ‘‘skills’’ to its Echo smart speakers, which require a parent’s permission to activate.
(Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Facebook’s expansion into this market has sounded some alarm bells. ‘‘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?’’ Jim Steyer, executive director of Common Sense Media, said in a statement.
Facebook said it will collect some data, including a child’s name, the content of their messages, and data about how the app is being used — even if it is not as extensive as the information it asks from adults.
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.
But Facebook reserves the right to share information with third parties, which must in turn have their own privacy policies to protect children.
Davis said that Facebook spoke with the Federal Trade Commission to ensure that the app complies with COPPA.
Facebook has been careful to comply with the law, said Kathryn Montgomery, a communications professor at American University and one of the main advocates who helped get COPPA passed. She first heard of Facebook’s interest in children five or six years ago and urged it not to create a full social network for children. With Messenger Kids, she said, Facebook has thought through what’s appropriate for kids. But, she warned, many products that start out being noncommercial change over time.
‘‘New aspects of the product will emerge,’’ said Montgomery, in her role as a senior consultant for the Center for Digital Democracy. ‘‘I think we’re at an interesting moment, and there are a lot of moves into that marketplace.’’
Facebook said it will 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. Davis said that if a parent decides to delete a child’s account, Facebook will also delete any data from its servers.
Safety remains a major question for any online product for kids. Facebook’s safeguards have made it more difficult for strangers to contact a child — but that safety depends on the fact that kids won’t know their parents’ Facebook passwords.
The app debuts 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.
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