Facebook launched Messenger Kids in December to rave reviews, mostly from parents.
The new app was created for safe, secure and fun family communication.
Those positive parent reactions actually make sense. After all, Facebook spent considerable time with experts, educators and parenting groups to be sure they were crafting a product parents would use and kids would like.
Getting kids to like it (and use it) is the trick, of course. They are a fickle bunch, always hot to try the next big piece of tech or shiny new app.
“After talking to thousands of parents, associations like National PTA, and parenting experts in the U.S., 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,” said Loren Cheng, Facebook’s product management director for Messenger Kids.
Initially available only on Apple’s App Store, Facebook released a version on Amazon for Fire Tablets in January and on the Google Play Store in February. Messenger Kids has been steadily moving up the list of app store popularity charts.
“In addition to our research with thousands of parents, we’ve engaged with over a dozen expert advisers in the areas of child development, online safety and children’s media and technology who’ve helped inform our approach to building our first app for kids,” Cheng added.
This included conversations related to topics of responsible online communication, parental controls and other issues important to organizations like Blue Star Families.
Messenger Kids is similar to Facebook’s popular Messenger app. However, it wasn’t created to simply sit on the Messenger backbone, even if it has some of the same features.
If you’re not familiar with Messenger, according to Statista.com, it ranks second among the world’s most popular messaging apps behind WhatsApp, and ahead of WeChat, QQ Mobile and Skype, respectively.
Like other messaging apps, users can connect with anyone else who uses the app, including international contacts. Messages can include different types of media, from traditional text messages to photos and video chats.
Once you create the account for your kids, they can start one-on-one or group video chats with parent-approved contacts.
“Parents fully control the contact list and kids can’t connect with contacts that their parent does not approve,” Cheng added. The home screen shows your kids who they’re approved to talk to, and when those contacts are online.
My kids love the tools for creating expressions through emojis, stickers, kid-appropriate GIFs, and adding masks and other effects to live video chats.
You won’t find annoying ads in Messenger Kids and Facebook claims your child’s information won’t be used for ads.
It’s free to download, and has one of my favorite features – no in-app purchases.
The Earnheardt house is full of “Stranger Things” fans.
Up until last week, I was a Twitter follower of “Stranger Things” star Millie Bobby Brown, who plays the role of Eleven, a young girl with a shaved-head and supernatural powers.
Okay. Eleven’s shaved head was season one. I’ll get back to that in a minute.
In any other case it would seem weird, maybe even creepy, for me to follow a then 13-year-old girl (Brown is now 14). But when that girl is the star of your family’s favorite TV show, it feels less, well, strange.
This is, in part, because we had a brief exchange on Twitter over a year ago.
Again, I’m well aware this sounds super creepy. I promise, it’s not.
Around the same time we were watching season one, we shaved our son’s head. He was having a bout with lice, and shaving his head helped speed the cure.
When we shaved his head, everyone in our home took notice of his uncanny resemblance to Brown (aka, Eleven with a shaved head).
I took a quick snap and posted a side-by-side comparison picture with my son and Brown, and a quip on the likeness:
“Pretty sure my Ozzie could play Eleven’s (aka @milliebbrown) long lost bro in @Stranger_Things season 3. Spitting image in a hospital gown.”
She responded with a:
Of course, her account is now deleted, and her "so cute" tweet no longer exists.
It doesn’t sound like much, but that quick tweet turned into thousands of “favorites” and only strengthened our family’s Stranger-Things-fandom resolve. Over the last year, I’ve continued to share Brown’s posts and update with our kids for no other reason than it was fun to connect over our family’s favorite show.
That was until last week, when Brown was forced to quit Twitter in the wake of harassment by cyberbullies who distorted her image, pegging her as someone violently homophobic (Brown is actually a champion of the LGBTQ community).
For me, it begs the bigger question of the appropriate age for social media use, let alone Twitter, even when that user is a celebrity.
I was complicit in the use of Twitter by a celebrity teen who I’m no longer convinced was the right age to handle the nuances of social media. Now I’m even more concerned about how non-celebrity kids are faring in such a hostile environment.
Instagram and Snapchat have their problems, but Twitter really requires an entirely different level of maturity.
Most platforms won’t allow users under the age of 13. The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 (COPPA) dictates this age for U.S.-based accounts.
Celebrity or not, most teens aren’t mature enough to handle the complexities of being social media mass communicators, and they probably won’t learn it in middle school or on the set of a popular TV show.
Maybe it’s time for COPPA to rethink that minimum age.
Jerry Springer said, “Because of social media, everyone is a politician. Everyone is a columnist.”
Springer said this in his remarks to newspaper columnists and writers at this past weekend’s National Society of Newspaper Columnists conference in Cincinnati.
It reminded me of a favorite saying I often use (and my wife is sick of hearing), “Because of social media, everyone is a mass communicator.”
Springer and I are both referring to the abundance of social media posts that resemble candidate stump speeches or “deep” critical analyses of some issue, and that because of social media, we all have a megaphone to share and react to that content.
The problem is, of course, that some of these posts include content from the misinformed, the un- or undereducated, and the conspiracy theorists.
The bigger problem is that these posts are drowning out the informed, educated, rational discussions from some rather smart writers.
David Lieber, “Watchdog” columnist for the Dallas Morning News, sees this problem first-hand.
“I kill in print, but I get killed online,” he said, referring to the number of “hits” or views (of lack thereof) his column gets on the newspaper’s website.
His most loyal followers are those who like ink on their fingers, those who still walk to the corner newspaper box to get their daily news fix.
It’s no secret to Lieber and other columnists who attended the conference that, unfortunately, it’s hard to attract new online readers.
Four decades into his news career, 30 years of that as a columnist, Lieber isn’t giving up, even if he openly admits that his days may be numbered.
“Look at this guy,” he said. “How can anyone compete with that,” Lieber asked with a wry grin when showing a picture of his fellow columnist standing next to Stormy Daniels.
His colleague, Lieber admits, “kills online” because he’s able to attract readers who use social media to reach readers who devour these kinds of stories and opinions.
So, rather than fade away, Lieber fights on — online.
“I know what I have to do to build my online fan base,” Lieber said before laying out his strategies, step-by-step, for finding readers and those all-important page views. “But it’s not easy to do it.”
Getting people to follow him on various social media platforms is part of it, but it still is about good, genuine storytelling.
Good stories, according to Lieber, still include foreshadowing (telling the reader what they’re going to get) and good editing. He also suggests using self-deprecation, humor and vulnerability to let your readers know you’re human.
There’s something to be learned from Lieber’s list of strategies for nurturing a fan base. Regardless of what great social media tactics you use to find those fans, telling a good story should always be at the top of that list.
I have a love-hate relationship with screens. That's the thing you're looking at (or through?) to read this.
Screens are plentiful in the Earnheardt house.
Aside from a few TVs, we have a smattering of mobile devices either plugged into walls, dangling precariously from the edge of a table, or in the grip of some grubby, ketchup-caked fingers.
I could spend hours regaling you with tales of cracked screens and our semi-ingenious methods for tracking lost devices, but the bigger questions I’ve had lately have to do with how we got to this point:
Why do we have so many screens? Do we really need them?
Put those questions in successive order to an Earnheardt kid and you’ll get, “Because” and “Yes,” respectively.
Somewhere in the last decade, we started to accumulate this tech in our home. It started slow with just a few small TVs and flip phones. As we added Earnheardts, we added more screens. A 70-inch plasma here, an iPad there, old smartphones in a drawer.
It's equal parts maddening and comforting.
We’re really not all that different from other families. Our kids like games and YouTube. My wife and I like news and social media. It’s just that, well, foolishly I thought we’d be more efficient by now – that we’d have fewer screens and more time to enjoy other things in life.
After all, that continues to be the unfulfilled promise of technology:
Use this device, or software, and your life will be simpler.
To this day, that promise serves as a primary sales tactic for every piece of tech we get sucked into buying. Ironically, our life is more complicated with it, but we can't life without it.
That promise, however, also led me to realize two undeniable facts.
Fact one: Yes, I’m no more productive than I used to be before screens, but I fear I’d be even less productive without them. Right or wrong, I sometimes feel a little secure with a screen nearby.
You’d never know this by reading it, but last week’s column was written on my smartphone while I was on a school bus filled with 7th graders, chaperoning my daughter band on a field trip to Kennywood Park, an amusement park in Pittsburgh, PA.
Somewhere between the long weekend, my fear of spending the day with tweens, and my deadline, I lost track of time and didn’t finish the column. When I loaded the bus, a wave of panic flushed my body – until I realized, “Oh, I have my phone. I can write it on here.”
Problem solved, thanks to my trusty screen.
Fact two: I rely heavily on my screens to maintain connections to people with whom I need (or want) to communicate professionally and personally.
This post is a perfect example. I’m writing this on a screen. When I’m done, I’ll open an email and send it off to my editor. When published on Vindy.com, I'll share it on social media and here, on my blog. When others read it, they’ll post comments about what they liked and disliked about my column (that's your cue). :)
At every step of the process, I use a screen to make those personal and professional connections.
The trick for all of us drowning in screens is to find a working balance between life with and without them, because accumulating screens does very little to help us grow what really matters: relationships with friends, colleagues and family.
Dr. Adam C. Earnheardt is professor and chair of the department of communication at Youngstown State University in Youngstown, OH, USA. He researches and writes about communication and relationships, parenting and sports. He writes a weekly column for The Vindicator newspaper on social media and society.