NEARLY half of Britain’s 11-year-olds have social media accounts.
In the US, the proportion is far higher. And Facebook, the online octopus with two billion global users, is worried.
Why? Because children are becoming addicted to their product, which relentlessly beckons them in to a surreal world of “likes” and links, fake news and fake profiles?
Not a bit of it. Facebook is worried that it’s not grabbing a big enough slice of the pie — that its competitors are beating it in the race to capture young minds.
So it has launched Messenger Kids, an app for children as young as six. That’s right, SIX.
In other words, from now on Facebook will have a community of users born in 2011.
Put that way, the new app sounds creepy, doesn’t it?
That’s why Facebook is working so hard to reassure parents that Messenger Kids is nothing to worry about. In fact, it’s a shield to protect your child online! A positive blessing! Sign up now . . .
I’m not reassured. But, to be fair, it does come with safeguarding tools. Children will only be able to talk to each other on it if a parent for each child agrees.
Any adult talking to children via the app must be “approved”. Also, all extras, such as emojis and sound effects, will be child-friendly.
What could possibly go wrong?
Again, we must be fair to Facebook. Messenger Kids is not an open invitation to paedophiles to make contact.
In theory, the electronic walls of this new playpen make it far safer than adult Facebook, which is already used by countless under-13s.
If parents can force their children off the main platform and on to Messenger Kids they will be protecting them from certain sorts of physical danger.
Provided, that is, they keep a close eye on everything tapped into the app — and Facebook manages to prevent security breaches, which hasn’t always been the case.
The real problem lies in the psychological effect of the whole experience on malleable minds.
As futurist Dr Brad Berens wrote yesterday: “Inviting a notification-filled interruption machine like Messenger Kids into the lives of children impairs their ability to focus and think at the exact time when they are building critical skills that will serve them for the subsequent several decades of their lives.”
Even former Facebook president Sean Parker has voiced concern about kids’ use of social media, saying last month: “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”
A few years ago, there were lots of scare stories about computers turning teenagers into automatons chained to their bedroom laptops.
In the event, things worked out differently. Young people are becoming twitchy and anxious as they move around, compulsively fishing computers — called “mobile phones” even though they rarely use them as telephones — out of pockets.
Children, especially girls, are terrified of falling behind classmates as they chase Instagram “likes”.
If they don’t get enough, that means they’re ugly. Even more alarming is a bullying craze on Snapchat, where the letter “X” designates a group victim who is deluged with hate messages.
We all know that children can be staggeringly unkind, but children prompted by their phones to send bitchy messages and judge each other’s appearances can reach new heights of nastiness.
Playground bullying is part of the DNA of social media. Apps such as Messenger Kids could force ever-younger children to run this gauntlet.
Also built into digital DNA is control-freakery. Facebook and its rivals make money by gathering information, which they must first manipulate us into submitting.
Relax, says Facebook: Messenger Kids will collect data, but none of this will be used to promote adult Facebook.
Really? In a world in which all media companies are desperately trying to monetise children’s viewing habits?
Just yesterday, BBC supremo Tony Hall gave a rambling speech at which he positively salivated at the possibility of “finding ways of reaching out and empowering children”.
I have a question for Lord Hall, and Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg. Who is really being empowered here? Children? Parents?
Or giant but fragile corporations whose survival depends on catching them young?
It goes without saying that we must use cutting-edge technology to teach children.
For example there’s nothing wrong with sites like Mathletics that turn maths problems into computer games.
But this latest push isn’t about teaching, and nor is it simply about making money out of the children’s market — toymakers have done that for centuries, and no one objects.
The difference is this.
Silicon Valley knows that to win very young consumers it must change the way their minds work, just as has been done to their social media-obsessed parents.
And it doesn’t care what you or I think about this.
It doesn’t even seem to care what governments, so often embarrassingly powerless to control the social media giants, think either.
As Jeremy Hunt tweeted yesterday: “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.”
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