Loren Cheng knows firsthand how Facebook’s conversations with parents shaped the creation of its first messaging app for kids. As a product management director for the tech firm, he helped guide the team that developed Messenger Kids — an app that allows children under 13 years old to send texts, images and videos to friends and relatives that their parents approve.
“One of the things that we noticed is that kids are getting devices younger and younger,” said Cheng, who is also a father of three children.
Released this month in the United States, Messenger Kids drew mixed reactions. Some thought Facebook built the app in a way that gave parents enough control while others still worry about privacy and cyberbullying.
Cheng recently sat down with this news organization to talk about the origins of Messenger Kids and addressed some of the privacy concerns. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: What did Facebook learn from its conversations with parents?
A: Parents really want their kids to be socializing and connected with others, whether that’s family members or other kids. One of the things they wondered about was if there’s some way technology can play a role. On the flip side, they’re also super concerned. Parents have grown up in a certain generation, and they think they understand technology pretty well. But the technology is changing so quickly that they worry about how their kids are using it.
Q: What was your role as a product management director in the development of Messenger Kids?
A: Product managers make sure a decision is made. Especially with a product like Messenger Kids, the team really took it seriously. There were a lot of strong opinions about how it should be built. That can make it harder to make decisions sometimes because everyone feels really convicted about the direction something should go in. The product manager tries to play this role in figuring out what is the problem we’re trying to solve and making sure that the team is always tracking toward that.
Q: How is the process of creating a product for a kid different than building one for an adult? You mentioned there were a lot of strong opinions.
A: One of the things that helped us out a lot here is we had a really good team to facilitate these conversations with families. We would go back to this team and ask them if they could help us dig to the bottom of a product decision. It was great to go back to families or experts and tell them: ‘We’re thinking about the following decisions. What do you think?’ That’s something that we got to do more than I’ve experienced before.
Q: You were on Facebook’s Protect and Care team. How did you apply your work there into your current role? Did you think a lot about how to create empathy and kindness among kids?
A: Being focused on what people are trying to do helps you make those decisions differently. For example, when people are saying things that are making other people upset. In Protect and Care, we studied that. We found that bad intention is rarely the case. Usually, it’s misunderstanding. Then you come up with a social resolution instead of getting more active in taking a post down. With Messenger Kids, we’re looking at: What are families trying to do? What are parents concerned about? What do kids really like?
Kids are going to be concerned about different things than adults. We didn’t make the assumption that we would take the adult reporting flow — where they tell us when they’re upset about something — and draft it over to the kid version. The language for adults is something like, ‘I feel like I’m being harassed or bullied.’ The language for Messenger Kids is: ‘This person is being mean.’ That’s what a kid would say. We used the language of the kid to figure out as much as possible what we can do there.
Q: Some parents and consumer advocates raised concerns about the data being collected through the app. What information is being collected from kids and how is it going to be used by Facebook?
A: When parents create an account, we only ask for first and last name. That was very much in response to families telling us what they were comfortable with in terms of sharing information about their kids. We don’t use the contents of the conversation for any sort of commercial purposes.
Q: Will the data being gathered from the app be used to show parents ads on Facebook? It’s the holiday season and you’re chatting with your kids about Christmas presents. They mention they want a Barbie Dream House. Then you wouldn’t see an ad on Facebook for a Barbie Dream House?
A: You are correct. My kid is 6 years old, and he loves Legos. We have conversations all the time, and he might talk about Lego sets. We don’t use that information at all for suggesting anything to parents or kids. There’s no advertising in the product.
Q: Has Facebook made a commitment that the product will be ad free in the future? Whenever a new product is rolled out, the strategy usually is to attract a large amount of users first and then decide how to make money afterwards.
A: It’s not our motivation. The heart of this product really did come from talking with parents and families. It’s not a one-time conversation. We’re going to continue improving the product. I think families have told us they want those conversations not to be commercialized.
Q: Do you have children, and is Messenger Kids something you’ll be using with your family?
A: I have been using it. I have three kids. At our launch party, the product managers all got slimed, so I sent a photo to the kids. They’ll take pictures of themselves, decorate it and send it to me. I send them music clips. They ask me how are things going in San Francisco? I’ll send them a picture. It’s just really cool.
Q: Is Facebook also looking at creating kid versions of its other family of apps? Are we going to see WhatsApp for kids, or Instagram Stories for kids in the future?
A: No. When we talked with families, they were really clear. What they really want is for kids to communicate with their families and close friends. They were more interested in that than their kids posting and a lot of people reading their stories. There’s less of that transparency in understanding who my child is communicating with, and they felt less comfortable with that than a communications app.