SAN FRANCISCO — More than 1 billion people — mostly adults — use Facebook’s Messenger app to communicate every month. Now, the future of Messenger is set to become much younger.
On Monday, Facebook announced that Messenger Kids, a stand-alone mobile app that allows children age 13 and under to use the service. The point of the new app, the company said, was to provide a more controlled environment for the types of activity that are already occurring across smartphones and tablets among families.
“Right now for kids, the time they spend on devices is very passive,” said David Marcus, vice president of messaging products at Facebook. “It’s not really a device that helps you connect with others close to them.”
The app, which will be in a preview release on iOS devices initially before rolling out to a wider audience, is Facebook’s latest effort to increase the number of people who rely on its service to connect with each other regularly. More than 2 billion people use Facebook every month, while its other apps like Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram have billions of users.
If Facebook Messenger proves popular with children, Facebook may reap many benefits. The company could see increased messaging activity and more engaged, regularly returning users, not to mention insights and a wealth of data on how families interact with one another on Messenger.
Yet Facebook is bracing for what will likely be a skeptical — if not outright hostile — response for creating a product specifically for children. Many parents are already concerned about the amount of screen time children spend with smartphones and other mobile gadgets, as well as how tech companies may be building up a trove of data on their children’s online habits.
The company said it spent months talking to parenting groups, child behavioral experts and safety organizations to aid in developing the app, and spent thousands of hours interviewing families across the country, probing the ways they currently communicate with one another. Facebook said that Messenger Kids is compliant with the Children’s Online Privacy and Protection Act and that it has worked closely with online watchdog organizations.
Messenger Kids is built so that children do not sign up for new Facebook accounts for themselves; Facebook’s terms of service require that users be over the age of 13. The app requires an adult with a Facebook account to set up the app for his or her child. After adults enter their Facebook account information into the app, they are asked to set up the children’s profile and which friends or family members they will be allowed to connect with on Messenger. Every additional friend request must be approved by the parent.
The app is fairly limited in scope, allowing for text and video chat, as well as sending photos. Like Instagram, Facebook or Snapchat, children can add filters or playful drawings to the photos they send.
Facebook can ill afford more controversies. The Silicon Valley company has already been in the cross hairs of Congress for months over the role it played in the 2016 election, with the rampant spread of fake news and divisive content on all of its platforms. The company has said more than 150 million people across Facebook and Instagram could have seen content linked to Russian agencies.
Still, the company said that issue is largely separate from Messenger. Facebook said its overall mission is still centered around bringing the world closer together, however divisive the activity on its many platforms may be.
“We can’t let the current state of things prevent us from doing our jobs, which is to solve real problems in people’s lives,” Mr. Marcus, the head of Messenger at Facebook, said.