Kids are increasingly using smartphones (devices designed for Internet and app data) for stuff they used to do on the computer. Games, music, social networking -- there's an app for everything these days.
Whether you're a smartphone-owning parent who downloads apps for your kids or your kids are finding apps for themselves, you'll want to check the age-appropriateness of the apps they use and set ground rules about browsing -- and paying -- for them.
(Download the Common Sense Media app so you can get age-based media guidance on the go!)
Mobile apps (short for "applications") are programs that can be
downloaded to any Internet-enabled smartphone. Apps
include every category you can think of -- games, education, and social
networking, to name a few -- and they're available for every age from toddlers to teens
App prices run from free to more than $10. To download an app, you need to create an account and a password. All of these transactions require a credit card. And even "free" apps aren't always as advertised.
Many free apps give you a major hard sell to upgrade to the full paid version, some display clickable ads within the app, others require you to purchase upgrades while you're using it, and others charge fees for virtual goods while you're playing. And just to mix it up, some apps -- for example, Disney's Toy Story 3 -- look free but are really portals to merchandising opportunities.
Apps may be cute, but they can also be very sophisticated. Apps don't
have any independent content ratings as of now -- app developers assign
their own ages to what they create. Sometimes they're right on, but
sometimes they're way off. Plus, browsing apps can bring up anything
from the adult app Texts From Last Night to the kids' game Puzzling Penguins. So parents have to know what's in
an app to make sure the content is age-appropriate for their kids.
It's important to keep in mind that apps work in the environment of a communication device -- a phone. So it's not surprising that social networking is a huge part of the app world. Many apps, even ones for young children, let your kid make "friends" with other users while they're playing a game. Social networking options can also include location sharing -- as in Foursquare, Gowalla, and Loopt -- which let your kid post his or her location. And lots of apps connect to a user's Facebook account, which is a way for the app to get free advertising among your friends. Social networking can also be found in multiplayer games, which use large gaming networks like Crystal and Open Feint to connect players. Be aware of whether your kids use these networks, and talk to them about not opting in if you're not comfortable with them.
All of that said, apps also have real potential as effective learning tools. A PBS Kids study funded by the U.S. Department of Education found that vocabulary improved as much as 31% in kids 3 to 7 who played with the Martha Speaks app. And some apps are so beautiful and creative that they provide an experience that no other medium can.
Establish rules around downloading. The key to keeping apps age appropriate is making the rules before anyone goes app shopping.
Limit screen time. Even if the games your kid plays on your smartphone are educational, it's still screen time. So count their smartphone time in their total screen allowance for the day.
Don't go by the developer's age rating. The age rating listed in the app description is from the developer, and they can be way off. Use Common Sense Media's ratings and reviews instead.
Look for age-appropriate apps with quality content. There are so many apps in the app store that it's easy to ignore the iffy ones and find the ones that are worth your kid's time.
Establish a spending limit. Apps can add up. Call us cheap, but we like the free ones!
Watch out for ad bombardment. Many "free" apps make their revenue by selling ads. Show your kid how to tell what ads look like.
For elementary-age kids:
Shop for apps alone or with your kid. Some of the content in app stores aren't for kids. Kids can very easily run across screenshots, user comments, and apps that aren't age-appropriate.
Find educational apps. There are a million of them, and they're fun.
Protect your password, and use content filters. A password is required to download an app. Many app retailers offer content filters that restrict the kind of content you can download. (Learn how to turn off the iTunes App Store on the iPhone.)
Double check the app name. Many apps have similar names, and you can get stuck with the gruesome iReading - Little Red Riding Hood when you meant to download the charming Little Red Riding Hood StoryChimes.
Check an app's multiplayer options. Even apps for little kids offer the ability to play against strangers. But you can usually disable this feature.
For middle and high school kids:
Talk about social networking apps that have location-sharing. Increasingly, many apps make it easy for teens to post their location, which opens them up to safety and privacy issues, including the possibility of face-to-face meet-ups with strangers.
Establish rules about which kinds of apps are OK to download. We don't recommend location-sharing apps, mean-spirited apps, alcohol- and drug-related apps, or apps with hefty in-game fees. If the iTunes App Store account is registered under your credit card and email address, you'll get a notification of what was downloaded.
Watch where your kids are spending their time. Opt-in game networks like Open Feint, Crystal Network, and Plus+ offer networking options, including chat -- which may be OK with you, but certainly should be discussed so you can establish healthy, responsible ground rules.