Facebook Pays the Price of Our Privacy

A $5B fine and buggy kids app put Facebook’s privacy issues in perspective

Illustration of a parent worrying about their child's Facebook privacy

Lifewire / Joshua Seong

My kids are well beyond “Kids app,” or, more specifically, Facebook Messenger Kids app age, so news that the app had overstepped its privacy control bounds for a small collection of users initially didn’t give me much pause.

But the news, which came a just a day before Facebook officially agreed to pay $5 Billion dollars in fines to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for its role in the Cambridge Analytica data privacy scandal (and other privacy crimes and misdemeanors), made me realize there's a broader — and necessary — reassessment of Facebook's data and privacy practices at work here. In the blog post on that news, Facebook details fundamental shifts in how it will “approach our work... [placing] additional responsibility on people building our products at every level of the company.”

Setting up Facebook Messenger Kids app
A few of the screen from the Facebook Messenger Kids app set-up process. Note the privacy info in the middle. Facebook

A New Facebook

Based on the details about all the new checks and balances put in place, including privacy controls that will be “parallel” to their approach to the company's financial controls (Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg will need to sign off on quarterly compliance reports), it’s unlikely Facebook will ever build anything quite like Messenger Kids again.

Facebook has made some whopper-sized privacy and data missteps over the last few years (if not longer) and has spent way too much time denying that it has a problem. That’s changing now, which is good news for Facebook consumers, billions of people whom I suspect will continue to use Facebook for the foreseeable future.

However, as I was reading Facebook’s FTC agreement blog post, I was also taking a closer look at Messenger Kids and wondering how parents could, with a clear conscience, use this thing in the first place.

Unnecessary Chat

First there’s Facebook’s hubris, the idea that any child under 13 really needs to be on a messaging platform.

Facebook proper, like virtually all other social media platforms and apps, has a 13-and-up requirement. In fact, when Common Sense Media reviewed the app in 2017, it noted that while the content it presented to children was kid-friendly, the data and information it collected could be “used to develop new products, which could mean that data will follow your kid into Facebook/Instagram use later on,” they wrote. In other words, Messenger Kids was designed to develop new Facebook customers.

Common Sense Media actually recommended that the app be restricted to children 13 and above, which is somewhat laughable since no self-respecting 13-year-old would be caught dead using this child-friendly app.

Facebook Messenger Kids
Note how Facebook tries to gamify the chat environment for kids.  Facebook

Out of Control

The core concern with Messenger, though, was the “bug” that apparently took what was supposed to be a very tightly controlled chat group and inadvertently opened it up to group members that had not been directly approved by a child’s parent. As is often the case with Facebook, it seems to have suffered from the “Friend of a Friend effect.” This is when you sees a post that you assumed was confined to your small group of friends but leaked out to other related Facebook members through Facebook’s somewhat inscrutable privacy settings.

I like using Facebook. In fact, I and most of my family are on it every day and consider it a valuable tool for staying connected and up to date on what’s happening with far-flung family members. I also did my best back in the early days of social media to keep my then-young kids off these platforms, with the notable exception of Club Penguin. In hindsight, giving kids access to that once-popular children’s only chat room might have been an oversight on my part.

It's Up to Us

Adults are now well aware that today’s children spend more time with screens than people and are having trouble developing interpersonal skills. Putting them on Messenger Kids before they’re old enough to develop those skills is likely a mistake, even more so because we know that: 

  •  Facebook probably won't do a great job of managing their still-unformed personal privacy policies
  • Even Facebook’s best attempts at guiding people through Messenger Kids privacy settings fall short
  • Kids need more time developing face-to-face communication skills
  • Facebook’s primary reason for developing a kids version of messenger appears to be cultivating future adult Facebook users

Future Facebook may not look much like the social media platform we know and use today, but in the meantime, whatever privacy and data management solutions Facebook cooks up, it’s still up to us to manage and share our children’s online experience, which does not have to begin before 13 with a child's version of a popular adult messaging tool.