How We Rate and Review: Apps

Behind the Common Sense Media ratings system

How to Choose the Right Apps for Your Kids

If you've ever browsed through app stores looking for a fun, well-made game for your kids (that might also teach them something), you know it can be an overwhelming experience. With more than 1 million apps already available each in iTunes and Google Play and thousands more being added each month, how can parents find the best age-appropriate apps for their kids -- and avoid minefields such as in-app purchases, iffy content, and privacy and safety issues?

The app store description is where most people start -- but it's hard to tell what an app is really like from the developer's description alone. User reviews help, but even that doesn't give you the full rundown on what to expect ... and some apps come with unwelcome surprises. Unless your kids are very young, chances are you won't play a game all the way through with them. That's where Common Sense Media comes in.

We start by helping you understand what content isn't only age-appropriate but also developmentally appropriate for your child. After that, you can determine what's OK based on the things that matter to you, like your kid's interests and individual temperament; what's fun and engaging for one 5-year-old may be frustrating for another.

Here are some things to consider when it comes to choosing the right apps for your kids:

  • What age is the app aimed at? Each app store has a different set of age/maturity rating criteria, and they aren't always helpful. Facebook, for example, is rated for age 4 and up in iTunes, but Facebook's terms of service require users to be at least 13. In fact, many apps set a minimum age of 13 in their terms of service to comply with COPPA rules -- even if that's not always apparent based on content. Some apps seem to be designed to appeal directly to young kids, but the developers say no one under 13 should use them. On the flip side, many apps that weren't necessarily designed for kids can be great for them. We base our age ratings on fundamental child-development principles, while understanding that every family is different. The key is to know your kid, taking into account many of the factors described in more detail below.

  • Quality. Yes, quality can be subjective -- and certainly your kids will like stuff you don't -- but look for some benchmarks. Is the app well designed? Is it engaging? Does it function well, or is it buggy? Is it developmentally appropriate? (An app with ads could still be a good pick for your teen but not for your preschooler.) Does it use bells and whistles and character appeal to offer worthwhile, meaningful content, or is it a cheap gimmick? There's a big difference between Frozen: Storybook Deluxe and Anna Giving Birth.
  • Learning value. Apps can have enormous educational potential, whether or not they were expressly designed for it. Still, although many are great tools for learning, plenty of apps that claim to be educational don't make the grade. We evaluate an app's learning potential not only in traditional subjects like math and reading but also in 21st-century skills like creativity and collaboration. We also focus on engagement, learning approach (depth of content, ability to transfer skills), and support (help, progress reports) to really hone in on the best apps for learning.
  • Ease of play. Many apps are extremely intuitive from the get-go, but others take some experimentation and instruction. The ability to jump in and start playing can have a big impact on whether a kid is ready for (and will enjoy) a particular app.
  • Violence, sex, and language. Though apps for younger kids don't have graphic violence, sex, or strong language, you could encounter cartoon fighting and sexily dressed characters. And it all intensifies as you move up the age range, going all the way to blood, gore, and prostitution. Apps with user-generated content or open chat and forums can be particularly unpredictable. You could spend an hour on Vine and only see funny videos about pets ... or you could see pornography. For many apps, your experience will vary depending on how you use them -- and on whom you decide to friend or follow. Common Sense Media offers expert guidelines for the level of violence, sex, and language that's developmentally appropriate for every age, but you may need to make a judgment call for your own child, based on your own values.
  • Consumerism. Free isn't always really free when it comes to apps. Sure, you can download an app for free, but what happens next? Will you constantly be pushed to spend real money on in-app purchases? Is the app still fun if you don't pay more? Lots of paid apps have in-app purchases, too, and some are reasonable while others feel greedy. Good apps are very clear up front about what you'll get for free and what you'll need to pay for. Other issues to watch out for include ads and branding: Many big-name toy companies and entertainment franchises have apps featuring their products and characters. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, even for learning -- a favorite character may be just the thing to draw kids in to a math app -- but consumerism is an important aspect to keep in mind and to talk to your kids about. Train them to be on the lookout for it, and they'll learn some valuable media-literacy skills.
  • Drinking, drugs and smoking. Some apps (iBeer, anyone?) make it abundantly clear that they're about drinking, drugs, or smoking. Others may include substance use as part of the story line but not as a focus. Consider how the topic is addressed: Is it glamorized? Are there consequences? Also, watch out for apps with user-generated content and open forums; they offer opportunities for people to glorify drinking, drugs, and smoking. We offer guidelines on what's developmentally appropriate for every age, but you may need to make a final call for your kids based on what you're OK with. And anytime substance use or abuse comes up, take the opportunity to discuss the issue with your kids.
  • Privacy and safety. For kids under 13, COPPA rules are designed to protect personal information. But whether an app is collecting personal information about kids or adults isn't always obvious. Some developers (not enough) offer short, sweet privacy policies written in plain language. But more often, you'll feel like you need a law degree to decipher the legalese. Aggregate data collection can be good -- it can even help developers improve their products. It's what happens to your information that's key. Will it be sold to marketers who then will target you? Can you have your personal information removed from the developer's records? There also are issues related to kids' safety to consider: Can they interact with others? Are location details collected and revealed? How easy is it to delete your account and remove any or all data?
  • User reviews. Sometimes it takes a village to figure out which apps are right for our kids. If you're on the fence, see what other parents -- and even kids -- are saying. Although our user community's ratings are based on personal opinion rather than developmental guidelines, they do rate apps using the same tools our editors do, with icons to flag areas of concern, stars to signal overall quality, and a target age to help you decide.

The bottom line is that it's up to you to do your research, but Common Sense Media makes it easy by providing detailed reviews so you know exactly what to expect. We've done the hard work for you -- you just have to apply it to your family. And don't forget: If you're not comfortable with what's on your kid's device, you can always turn off the app or delete it.