Sleep mode? Tech gi­ants’ kids’ ‘fixes’ amount to baby steps

Daily Times (Primos, PA) - - BUSINESS - By Barbara Or­tu­tay

NEW YORK » Face­book is adding a “sleep” mode to its Mes­sen­ger Kids ser­vice to let par­ents limit when their kids can use it.

It’s the lat­est con­ces­sion that tech com­pa­nies are mak­ing as crit­ics question whether they should be tar­get­ing kids at all. Among their chief con­cerns: The ef­fects on kids are not yet known, and com­pa­nies might not have chil­dren’s best in­ter­ests at heart when tech for kids is such a lu­cra­tive mar­ket.

Rather than kill the ser­vices com­pletely, as some crit­ics want, Face­book, Ama­zon and Google are mostly tin­ker­ing at the edges. That leaves open the un­der­ly­ing ques­tions of whether their prod­ucts truly serve a need for the youngest set and if they are good for them.

Here’s a look at the changes an­nounced this week:

FACE­BOOK’S MES­SEN­GER KIDS

In De­cem­ber, Face­book cre­ated a kids-friendly ver­sion of its Mes­sen­ger app. It has no ads and gives par­ents plenty of con­trols over whom their chil­dren can chat with. The think­ing was that while the reg­u­lar apps are de­signed for peo­ple 13 or over, younger kids were on it any­way. Face­book saw Mes­sen­ger Kids as a way to give the younger set a safer op­tion.

— The changes: Par­ents can now spec­ify the times kids aren’t al­lowed on — ei­ther as a one-time re­stric­tion or some­thing re­cur­ring, such as af­ter 9 p.m. ev­ery school night. While the app is in sleep mode, kids will get a mes­sage when they open it telling them so, and they won’t be able to use it.

— The short­com­ings: Crit­ics say that Mes­sen­ger Kids isn’t re­spond­ing to a need, but rather cre­at­ing one. “It ap­peals pri­mar­ily to chil­dren who oth­er­wise would not have their own so­cial me­dia ac­counts,” states a let­ter signed by 100 child de­vel­op­ment ex­perts and ad­vo­cates. Merely of­fer­ing time con­trols falls short of killing the app com­pletely.

YOUTUBE KIDS

Since 2015, the Google-owned ser­vice has had a child-ori­ented app, YouTube Kids, de­scribed as a “safer” ex­pe­ri­ence for find­ing “Peppa Pig” episodes or user-gen­er­ated videos of peo­ple un­box­ing toys.

Nonethe­less, the com­pany has been un­der fire for not vet­ting out com­puter-gen­er­ated, sometimes dis­turb­ing video, such as your fa­vorite car­toon char­ac­ters hav­ing painful den­tal surgery — or worse.

The non­profit Cam­paign for a Com­mer­cial-Free Child­hood has also asked the Fed­eral Trade Com­mis­sion to in­ves­ti­gate whether YouTube’s data col­lec­tion and ad­ver­tis­ing practices vi­o­late fed­eral child pri­vacy rules.

— The changes: YouTube said this week that it is over­haul­ing its kids app so par­ents can limit video to those vet­ted by hu­mans, rather than com­put­ers. With this op­tion, kids can watch only a se­lec­tion of chil­dren’s pro­gram­ming such as “Se­same Street” and PBS Kids.

— The short­com­ings: The old au­to­mated sys­tem is on by de­fault, mean­ing par­ents need to ac­tively choose the hu­man-only op­tion. And YouTube is continuing to show ads on its kid-fo­cused ser­vice.

It also doesn’t help that many kids (with or with­out their par­ents) use the main YouTube site for video, mean­ing they miss out on both hu­man and au­to­mated con­trols for kids.

AMA­ZON’S ALEXA

Sure, it’s fun to ask Ama­zon’s Alexa voice assistant to fart — as many kids have dis­cov­ered af­ter par­ents buy an Alexa-en­abled Echo speaker. But par­ents and child­hood ex­perts have been won­der­ing what ef­fects smart speak­ers may have on young kids, who may not quite un­der­stand whether Alexa is hu­man and maybe learn from bark­ing or­ders at her that bark­ing or­ders is OK.

— The changes: Alexa will soon thank kids for shout­ing out ques­tions “nicely” if they say “please,” the on­line re­tail gi­ant an­nounced Wed­nes­day . The new re­sponse is part of a kid-friendly up­date that’s com­ing next month, giv­ing par­ents more con­trol over the voice assistant. Adults can also set Alexa to go silent at bed­time or block mu­sic with ex­plicit lyrics.

— The short­com­ing: This may be ap­peas­ing par­ents just enough to buy more Ama­zon prod­ucts. Af­ter all, the com­pany did not get to where it is to­day by miss­ing out on new busi­ness op­por­tu­ni­ties. Ama­zon said it will now sell an $80 Echo Dot aimed at chil­dren, com­plete with col­or­ful cases and a two-year war­ranty (reg­u­lar Echo Dots are $50).

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Face­book and Face­book’s Mes­sen­ger Kids app icons are dis­played on an iPhone in New York. Face­book is adding a “sleep” mode to its Mes­sen­ger Kids ser­vice so par­ents can limit how much time chil­dren spend on it.

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