Most experts who vetted Facebook’s Messenger Kids – a video calling and messaging app designed for the under 13s – received funding from the social media giant, WIRED has reported. When Facebook rolled out the app for children in December 2017, the company claimed it had worked closely with leading experts in order to safeguard younger users. But what it did not mention was that many of those experts received Facebook funding, said the report on Wednesday.
“After talking to thousands of parents, associations like National PTA and parenting experts in the US, we found that there’s a need for a messaging app that lets kids connect with people they love but also has the level of control parents want,” Loren Cheng, the Facebook’s Product Management Director, said in a statement at the time of the app’s roll out.
Facebook stressed that the app was ‘co-developed’ with parents, kids and experts through conversations with organisations like National PTA, Blue Star Families and an advisory board with more than a dozen experts, from groups such as the Yale Centre for Emotional Intelligence, Connect Safely, and Sesame Workshop.
The WIRED reports has detailed Facebook’s financial ties with some of these organisations and experts. “At least seven members of Facebook’s 13-person advisory board have some kind of financial tie to the company,” the report said. The National PTA said Facebook donated money for the first time in 2017, which the organisation used to fund a survey and roundtables. The report, however, noted that funding from Facebook might not have affected the feedback or research around Messenger Kids.
The advisers who spoke to WIRED offered thoughtful perspectives often supported by research. “It is important that families are armed with resources and tools to help them take advantage of the opportunities that the digital world offers while building good digital habits and ensuring children have the skills they need to be responsible online,” National PTA President Jim Accomando was quoted as saying.
Since its launch in December 2017, Messenger Kids is facing widespread criticism for encouraging children to join social media. British Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt in December warned the social media giant to stay away from his children. “Facebook told me they would come back with ideas to PREVENT underage use of their product, but instead they are actively targeting younger children. Stay away from my kids please Facebook and act responsibly!” Hunt posted on Twitter.
On January 30, more than 100 child health experts urged Facebook to withdraw the app. In an open letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, the experts said that the ‘younger children are simply not ready to have social media accounts’. “We are writing to urge you to discontinue Messenger Kids, Facebook’s first social media app designed specifically for children under the age of 13,” said the letter signed by doctors, educators and child health experts and several organisations, chief among which is the US-based Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood.