One of the many things we’ve learned during this season of being homebound is that video chats with friends can save the day. One of the newest channels for video chatting is Messenger Rooms. While the new Facebook feature isn’t groundbreaking in terms of how it works, it’s the ability to pull together a big group of friends spontaneously that may make this a popular digital hangout for kids.
Messenger Rooms functions similarly to the popular video conferencing app Zoom. The exception: There’s no need for users (or guests) to download a new app, create an account, or send out pre-planned meeting invites.
Messenger Rooms is simple. One person sets up a Messenger Room, that Room is assigned a URL, the organizer sends his or her friends that link, and those friends can instantly click it and be in the room. With so many families still opting to avoid large gatherings, Rooms may be the next best way to socialize in the most organic, pre-pandemic way.
The app makes it easy to watch movies together since one user screen can be pinned to the top of the chat for shared viewing. Kids can also have game nights, birthday parties, organize workout and study groups, or have a “squad hangout” as the Room title options call out (see graphic, below).
A few specific features may make Messenger Rooms appealing to kids. First, it’s easy to drop friends a link and be together almost instantly in a private room. Messenger Rooms is free, doesn’t have time limits, and up to 50 friends can get together in one room — from anywhere in the world. Kids joining a Room from their mobile app can apply quirky filters to their backgrounds or faces, which brings in the creativity element they get from Instagram Stories and Snapchat.
Privacy. So far, privacy seems to be the biggest concern being raised and here’s why. Messenger Rooms, like Facebook, collects metadata from users — including guests without Facebook accounts. Metadata may include the people you talk with, at what times, and how often, all of which can be shared with a third party. Also, Messenger Rooms, while it does not record calls (like Zoom), lacks end-to-end encryption, which makes the channel vulnerable to hackers and compromises private conversations.
Troublemakers. Live chat rooms are not password-protected, so if a Room organizer decides to make a Room public or fails to lock a room they intended to be private, anyone can pop in and do anything. Much like the Zoom bombers emerging, anyone could crash a meeting with racial rants or graphic content. A link to a room can also be shared with others by anyone who has the link.
Cyberbullying. As with any app, conflicts can arise as can cyberbullying or harassment.
If you notice your kids using Messenger Rooms, you may consider having a few conversations that highlight the risks.
- Privacy settings. If you organize a Room, lock it to keep unwanted people from crashing your meet up.
- Nothing is private. Messenger Rooms isn’t encrypted, so it’s not the place to have private conversations or share sensitive content. Note: The internet in any form isn’t the place to share any personal content. Anything exchanged online — even a “private” text between two people — is vulnerable to hackers, device theft, or the possibility of a relationship falling out.
- Nothing is free. Remind your children that services online are free for a reason. There is always an exchange: Free use for data. Be aware that profile information and bits of a conversation could be mined and used by a third party. To understand better how data is collected, Facebook’s help center or data policy.
- Lock your room. Unless your child adjusts his or her preferences, it will be open to anyone that person is friends with on Facebook who will see the public Room at the top of their newsfeed. That means lovable Uncle Pete may mistakenly stumble into your daughter’s “squad” rant unless the Room is locked.
- Report and block. If an unwanted person disrupts a Room kids can block the user and report it to Facebook.
- Age-appropriate options. For kids under 13 (Facebook age requirement), there’s Messenger Kids, a Facebook feature that allows younger kids to video call with friends in a parentally-supervised room. It’s a great tool for teaching kids safe, online practices before they use the real thing.
To stay ahead of the digital hangouts available to kids, visit McAfee Consumer Family Safety blogs each week. You may also consider monitoring your child’s devices with parental controls designed to filter content, monitor screen time, and track new apps.