Mobile apps are one of the most popular ways to access all kinds of content, including useful services, games, and even books. But as soon as the novelty wears off, the concern creeps in. Consider Apple's App Store, where Balloonimals -- a fun game for 4-year-olds -- is as easily downloadable as iBeer (which is not for kids). And are you ready for your kid to use Foursquare and other social-mapping apps thet let kids publicly post their location? Probably not.
1. Don't judge an app by its title. iReading – Little Red Riding Hood or Little Red Riding Hood StoryChimes? One is a gruesome tale and the other is charming. Lots of apps sound the same, but can be entirely different. Double and triple-check the name of the app before you download.
2. Check the connections. Be aware of multiplayer options. The card game Uno, for example allows kids to play with people they don't know. The puzzle game Angry Birds connects to the Crystal Network, an online gaming community that's linked to Facebook and Twitter. Just because kids are playing games on your phone doesn't mean their multiplayer options are limited. Their ability to interact with strangers online via smartphone is just as sophisticated as it is on your home computer. Turn off multiplayer options if you're not comfortable with them.
3. Play "find that ad!" App developers are looking for all kinds of ways to profit from their products. Kids could stumble across in-game purchases, contests, product placements, and other sneaky marketing devices. Keep an eye on the game and teach your kid to be ad-savvy.
4. Count the costs. Apps range widely in their prices, from free to upwards of $10. Manage downloads by setting limits on how much kids can spend or use parental controls to block access to download sites. (Learn how to set parental controls on the iPhone).
5. Take time to window shop. Democracy rules in the app world, where adult apps like Texts From Last Night are offered side-by-side with kids' brainteasers like Puzzling Penguins. App descriptions, screenshots, and user comments are displayed for every app, but they are not appropriate for every age. Limit exposure to age-inappropriate material by browsing the apps yourself, reading our app reviews, and taking note of ones your kids might be interested in.
6. Evaluate the cost of "free." Lots of apps come in a "lite" version that are full of ads that may not be age-appropriate. The full version of these apps most likely does not have the ads, so it might be worth it to spend the money to avoid seeing the ads.
Apps can open a new world for you and your kids, but when it comes to app descriptions, read the fine print. Ignore the age ratings suggested in the app's description. Those age ratings are recommended by the creator of the app. And finally, talk to your kid before entrusting him or her with such a powerful (and expensive!) piece of technology like a smartphone. Talk with your kid about using the device -- and those fun little apps -- responsibly.