College of Education and Human Development - George Mason University

CEHD Professor Consults on App for Children With ‘Parents at the Center’

January 17, 2018

If you’re an enormous social media company looking to adapt some of your technology for younger children, you want to make sure you’re creating a fun user experience—but also a safe one.

That’s what Facebook was recently looking to do. While preparing to put together what eventually became Messenger Kids, which launched in late 2017, the company consulted with experts on children and media. One of those experts was Kevin Clark, a College of Education and Human Deveopment professor and director of the Center for Digital Media Innovation and Diversity.

“I thought it was positive,” Clark says of the app, which targets children in the 6 to 12 age range. “For me, the biggest pro was that the app was designed with parents as the center.”

Clark says that it can be easy for children to install an app without their parents’ awareness. “The Messenger Kids app is built with the understanding that parents are pivotal in providing access to the app,” Clark explains, “and also providing access to other people, or access to the child’s network.”

It works like this. First, the child’s parent needs to have a Facebook account. Parents can then allow their child to download Messenger Kids onto her or his own device. When the child begins to use the app, the parent becomes an arbiter. Every time the child wants to connect with a friend or acquaintance, the parent initiates a contact request on the child’s behalf—and the parent of the child on the other end has the ability to approve the request. After that, the kids can chat away.

If a child wants to defriend another child, the parent gets a notification as well—which could lead to a parent-child chat about why.

“It creates this dialogue that can happen—or that has to happen—between parents and their children,” Clark says.

This embedded parental involvement is made all the more important by the proliferation of negative media, and how easy it is for young people to be affected by it. According to Clark, children of color consume more media than any other group, and they are often affected by the negative content that is so common.

A two-pronged strategy moving forward, according to Clark, would be to help young people and their parents improve their media literacy, and then work to create more content and media that is balanced, authentic, and provides more representation.

While so much negative content is easy for children to find, Clark says that the Messenger Kids app is a good way for parents to monitor what their children are seeing.

“I applaud them for taking an approach in which they are trying to do something that provides a safe and closed environment for young people,” he says.