Children begin fumbling with their parents’ phones at a very tender age. They quickly figure out how to unlock the password and scroll their way to the camera and games on the phone. Their curiosity is sky-high.
That partly explains why social media giant Facebook recently unveiled Messenger Kids for children aged six to 12 years in Africa.
Unlike its mother application, Facebook’s Messenger Kids’ icon is green.
It appears with images and a lot of colour on the App Store search display.
Mr Kojo Boakye, head public policy Facebook Africa, says the application was created after market consultations discovered that parents wanted their children on a safe and controlled social media space.
Views from the public in Uganda suggest otherwise.
Many responses to children accessing social media were disapproving. Some nonetheless approved.
“My son is three and already learning computer. At five, he should be a wizard in the making. At 10, he will be coding already. With or without a phone, he will have access to these things. To me, it is just a question of control on the inside and outside,” Mr Orin Douglas says on Facebook.
“I think before 18 years, there is no essence of a child having access to social Media. Currently, parents have aborted our culture and norms where they have allowed children to access media by buying them phones which leads to distraction. This is denial of children’s rights by allowing them to miss a stage and mature with toxic minds,” Felix Nuwagaba disapproves.
On Twitter, people’s views were more intolerant to the idea.
Winnie Nwagi says, “A’ Level for me. Social media is not good for a young child. Otherwise, they would disconnect themselves from relatives and responsibilities, just to be on their phones.”
“It would not have been a problem but the content is not rated to the extent that many social media users misuse it by posting nude photos not caring about anything,” Nicholas Betungye says.
Michael Mitch says, “There is a lot of misleading information, a lot of members with dangerous intentions. I think that is a world for people over the age of 18. There are other uses of the Internet rather than social media.”
Others believe it is a circumstantial decision.
“It all comes to what kind of family this child is raised in, say; social, economic, as well as morality. So it is not about age, because even when they grow up, what they will find will have an effect on them,” Alan Lukyamizi says.
According to Dr Paul Nyende, lecturer at Makerere University School of Psychology, access to
social media for children is a double edged sword. It has pros and cons.
“Human beings are social beings so it is a vital development for children provided it is used well. There are many benefits from this such as building knowledge and skills because there is an opportunity of connecting people with interests in the same area,” he says.
There is also collaborative learning through sharing educational content.
“Under this lockdown of schools, children pass class work onto others. It also boosts creativity. Children can be very creative with technology through manipulating photos, videos and video games,” he explains.
Social media, he says, can also create a sense of connection which is critical for mental health and well-being.
However, there is an outstanding risk of exposure to inappropriate content.
“Parents worry most about exposure to inappropriate content. So much is shared and you never know what your child will come across,” he says expounding that it can affect the atmosphere of children and friendships in addition to breeding conflict.
Bullying which is one of the causes of depression in today’s society is also amplified on social media.
Sharing information via social media exposes the child to strangers.
Targeted advertising is also another risk.
“There are people who target children with inappropriate adverts such as drugs or sex. ,” Dr Nyende says.
However, he notes, parents can mitigate the risk of exposure for their children.
The application used is very important. It should have strict parental controls.
Most social media applications set their minimum age limit to 13 years.
Cognisant of the fact that some users are below 13, the applications usually include parental control, which needs to be set.
Tiktok, this year, also introduced the family pairing feature that links children’s accounts to their parents’ granting them control.
However, apps such as YouTube has YouTube kids and Facebook, Messenger Kids tailor made only for children.
Facebook says it has integrated some of the child protection features in its application such as prohibiting advertising in the app.
Messenger Kids also allows parents to view the child’s activities on the app such as contacts even those that are blocked and posts through the parent dashboard.
Parents are allowed to control the time a child accesses the app through the sleep mode feature.
Ms Charity Delmus is a data scientist, machine learning researcher and blogger who has taught children how to code.
There is need for parents to receptive towards children using social media.
“Children should be introduced to social media for many reasons including the improvement in skills in critical thinking, problem solving and cognitive abilities,” she urges.
However, she notes, different technology initiatives aimed at getting children safely online have not been widely adopted.
“Research shows that 59 per cent of children below the age of 10 are using social media (including Facebook, despite the entry threshold being 13),” she says.
There is need for technology adoption in Africa to ensure the continent is not left behind.
However, information from UCC indicates that out of the 42 million people in Uganda, there were only 6.6m users of smartphones in December 2019.
17.1m use feature phone users that have some functionality similar to smartphones and 3.4m people with basic phones to only make calls and send messages.
Price of smartphones is also a strong variable in whether Messenger Kids is for Uganda.