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Are all mobile apps safe for kids to download and use? The answer is no. The good news is that there are plenty of child-friendly apps today for elementary school kids to teens. Unfortunately, the challenge is finding apps that are truly child-friendly.
What can parents do when there are more than 700,000 apps in the iTunes Store and 700,000 in the Android market, Google Play? Your kids likely have dozens on their phone or tablet right now.
The Google Play (formerly called Android Market) and the iTunes Store each have a rating system in place for the apps available for download. But ratings can be vague, inconsistent, lenient, and can effectively put inappropriate apps in the hands of a child.
Why? Apps are not rated by Apple or by Google, but by developers who write them.Developers can range from legitimate software developers to some smart dude in a basement. As such, Android and iOS apps can be rated inappropriately. To see the developer policies, go to the Google Play Developer Program or the iTunes Store.
Apple iTunes Store Ratings
Apple has four categories for classifying apps:
Google Play Ratings for Android
Google Play groups apps into four rating categories:
2) Low Maturity
3) Medium Maturity
4) High Maturity
At first glance, these are not completely self-explanatory. The Apple rating system might make slightly more sense because we are accustomed to movie ratings such as PG and PG-13. But are the Android and Apple ratings close to being the same? What do these ratings really mean?
For Android, a “Medium” rated app can include crude humor, profanity, sexually-suggestive material, fantasy violence, simulated gambling, and references to drugs, alcohol, and hate speech. And a “12+” iOS app can contain fantasy or realistic violence, mild language, mild mature or suggestive themes, and simulated gambling.
If you're like me, I'm not getting a good level of comfort at this point. But parents should have a reasonable understanding of app ratings before setting a child loose in the app store.
For example, an iPhone/iPod Touch app with a 12+ rating might sound perfectly fine for teenagers, but the "SnapChat" app, which is rated 12+, demonstrates that this clearly isn’t always the case. SnapChat is an iOS app that allows the sending of text messages or pictures that self-destruct after a short period of time. Hypothetically, you can send photos or draw and send images to friends. But teens know this app can be used for sending sexually explicit texts (or sext messages).
The Android counterpart to Snap Chat is called "Fancy Snap" and is also ratedMedium. Both permit the sending of sexually explicit messages and show no regard for consequence.
What Can Parents Do?
Only a parent knows what is appropriate for his or her child. Rather than blindly trusting either system for app ratings, parents should exercise their own judgment.
1. Set rules for your kids, such as not letting them download apps without your review and approval.
2. Take time to review the apps yourkids want. You can read what other users say about the app to see if there are problems.
3. If you have an iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad, Apple provides tools to disable in-app purchases, to stop apps from being downloaded, and you can invoke a rating system filter, and much more.
4. If you use an Android device, consider using an app manager to block apps from being used without parental permission.
5. If you have a Kindle Fire, there are a few built-in parental controls features.
It's clear from device manufacturers such as Apple and Amazon, there is interest in providing some parental controls these days.
But as always, parents should be aware of the pitfalls of rating systems and parents should maintain an open dialogue with kids about their use of technology. It’s better to be safe now than sorry later.