In case you haven’t heard, there’s a new Facebook app for children called Messenger Kids, targeted for children ages 13 and under. It asks parents to give their approval so that their child can message, add filters and doodle on photos they send to other children. It’s a clear play for a new generation.
It’s also a time to ask some clear questions for a new generation of parenting:
“How young is too young for children to use this kind of social media?”
“How and when should they start their online lives?”
There are some who would argue that you can’t start too young. That a child’s early adoption of technology is no different than their early exposure to a foreign language. At the very least, their child’s adoption of technology is inevitable, so, “Thank you, Facebook,” for making something age appropriate.
Then there are those who not only see technology creeping far too deep into family life, but also see the use of smart phones and their accompanying apps at ever-earlier ages as a dangerous slide into the abyss.
Let’s state the obvious. Preteens already make ample use of YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat and Musical.ly—all of which state they are not for use for said preteens. And we also know that they already text. A lot. So perhaps we should be glad that Facebook has developed a social media app where parents control the contact list and children can’t connect with contacts their parents do not approve.
If this feels strangely like a conversation about when to talk to your kids about sex, or when they should become sexually active, or when they should be allowed to watch certain programs, or read certain books… it should.
Because it’s precisely that kind of concern.
And parents face the same dilemma in so many other areas: Do I let my kid go with the flow? Do I give in to the old “every other kid” vibe—as in every other kid is doing it, has one, has seen it, or is going to be there? Do I violate my best instincts out of social pressure?
Or, do I ban it and run the risk of them feeling left out, shunned, teased and socially deprived?
First, let’s understand childhood, shall we? It is a time when a child is supposed to be a child. Yet as sociologist Neil Postman wrote in one of his most important works, The Disappearance of Childhood, children are being robbed of their innocence, their naiveté, their ability to even be a child. He contended that in our world, we ask children to embrace mature issues, themes and experiences long before they are ready.
Postman argued that the very idea of childhood is that there should be a time when a young person is sheltered from certain ideas, experiences, practices, expectations and knowledge. They should be sheltered from adult secrets, particularly sexual ones. Certain facets of life – its mysteries, contradictions, tragedies and violence – are not considered suitable for children to know. Only as children grow into adulthood are they revealed in ways that they can assimilate psychologically, emotionally and spiritually.
So as a parent, ask yourself: does this, or any other technology, enhance or erode your child’s childhood?
Second, let’s talk about the pressure parents face to conform, to give in, because “all of the other parents” are letting their kids do something, see something, go to something or own something. Parents who take a stand can feel like they’re swimming upstream, and that.gets.hard.
I get it.
But being a Christian parent, doing the right thing and protecting your child’s childhood is not going to win any popularity contests in this very dark and fallen world. It is not going to put you or your child in the mainstream. You will be raising them counter-culturally because the culture itself is not a Christian one.
So where do you draw the line? Because not everything has to be counter-cultural. Christ is not on the line with every decision.
What makes something a “minor” instead of a “major”?
Four things: that it doesn’t have anything substantive to do with conduct, character, influence or exposure.
By conduct, I mean it doesn’t have anything to do with moral behavior.
By character, I mean it doesn’t have anything to do with their inner world.
By influence, I mean it doesn’t have anything to do with what is going to shape or mold them.
And by exposure, I mean it doesn’t have anything to do with what they are going to take into their heart or mind.
So should your child be allowed to use Messenger Kids?
I’ve purposefully not answered that for you.
But I’ve also, very purposefully, given you some things to think about as you decide.
James Emery White
Mike Isaac and Natasha Singer, “New Facebook App for Children Ignites Debate Among Families,” The New York Times, December 4, 2017, read online.
Hayley Tsukayama, “Facebook’s New Messaging App Deepens Debate Over Kids’ Social Media Use,” The Washington Post, December 4, 2017, read online.
David Bloom, “Facebook Makes Another Run at Gen Z Audiences with Messenger Kids App,” TV[R]EV, December 4, 2017, read online.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.