Facebook kids app flaw let under-13s talk with strangers

Natasha Bernal
A flaw in Facebook's messaging app for children allowed them to chat to strangers  - Getty Images Contributor

A flaw in Facebook's app for under-13s has allowed children to be contacted by strangers, the company has confirmed.

Messenger Kids launched in 2017  as a "controlled environment" where parents can allow children as young as six to speak to close friends and family by pre-approving their contact list. 

However, a design flaw in the app allowed Facebook users, who were not approved by some parents, to enter into conversations with young children.

Facebook said the flaw - which has now been fixed - meant that in some cases it was possible for a child in a group chat to come into contact with a third person who, while approved by the parent of one child, had not been approved by the other.

The technology giant told thousands of users affected that a "technical error" allowed these group chats to take place, in a message first seen by The Verge.

Facebook has not issued a wider warning to all Messenger Kids users.

A Facebook spokesperson said: "We recently notified some parents of Messenger Kids account users about a technical error that we detected affecting a small number of group chats.

"We turned off the affected chats and provided parents with additional resources on Messenger Kids and online safety."

Andy Burrows, associate head of child safety online at the NSPCC, said Facebook's handling of this technical issue "speaks volumes about their approach to keeping children safe".

“They have admitted to a gaping flaw in a platform supposedly designed specifically for children.It’s galling that Facebook haven’t explained how long it’s been going on or how long they’ve known about it," he said.

“That’s why the Government’s forthcoming Online Harms laws must force social networks to report the scale and nature of child safety breaches to a regulator, with hefty consequences if they fail to do this properly and quickly.”

The app, which allows children to have video conversations and share pictures of themselves, was slammed by health experts last year who branded it "addictive" because it allows children to initiate friend requests.

More than 100 pediatricians, child charities and parent groups signed a letter to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in which they warned that the app could be detrimental to a child's development.  

Messenger Kids is not yet available in the UK but is in use in the US, Canada and Peru. Facebook plans to introduce it in Britain but has not yet specified a date.

At the time of the app's release, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt - then Health Secretary - accused Facebook of failing to act responsibly when it came to protecting children.

"Not sure this is the right direction at all," Mr Hunt tweeted at the time.

"Facebook told me they would come back with ideas to PREVENT underage use of their product, but instead they are actively targeting younger children. Stay away from my kids please Facebook and act responsibly."

The social network responded by saying the app had been created after consultations with parents and safety experts and had been created in response to parents "increasingly allowing their children to use tablets and smartphones".