I'm often surprised by how little time and thought parents put into deciding what apps their kids can download on their phones or tablets.
As a technology education researcher, one of the biggest mistakes I see parents making is letting their kids install an app simply because "all the other kids are doing it."
Selecting apps is not a popularity contest. Every child's needs and interests are different, and an app that makes sense for one child may not necessarily make sense — or be healthy — for another.
Here's what smart parents ask before downloading an app on their kids' devices:
1. Who does the app connect my child with?
If the app allows your kid to communicate with other users — beyond playing games against each other — consider who those people are. Do your kids already know them in person, or are they anonymous users? Does the communication take place in groups, or in one-on-one settings?
Apps that allow interactions with others can be a great way to encourage kids to stay in touch with family and friends. But apps that allow conversations with complete strangers can open the door to bullying.
Always check the settings and descriptions to make sure kids can easily report abuse. Roblox, for example, offers several ways to monitor account activity.
If you decide that an app is safe, set conditions with your child and discuss what's considered inappropriate to share, such as personal information, photos and videos that you don't want seen by the public, or hurtful comments.
2. How does the app make money?
Very few apps are actually free, even if they're advertised that way. It's okay to pay for good apps, but parents should understand how they're expected to pay before downloading.
Some apps have a straightforward one-time fee or monthly subscription plans. But watch out for apps that require additional in-app purchases to unlock basic features. Apps that constantly ask for more money may not be appropriate for younger children who can't recognize this type of upselling.
The most problematic moneymaking strategy comes from apps that make money by bombarding kids with ads that may not be appropriate.
To prevent your kid from going on a spending spree, most phones allow you to change the settings to require a password for purchases.
3. What is the app teaching my child?
Identify how the app keeps your child engaged. Does it provide high-quality content, or does it use cheap tricks that may lead to unhealthy habits? Some apps, for example, include systems where points or progress are reset if a child doesn't use the app every day.
Keep in mind that not all gaming apps are bad. Pokemon Go requires basic math and introduces players to nearby landmarks. Minecraft can teach kids the fundamentals of programming skills, teamwork, problem-solving and offers an environment that fosters out-of-the-box thinking. For kids ages 6 to 10, Busy Water encourages critical-thinking skills to use wheels, blocks and paddles to help Archie the fish find his way back into his tank.
On the other hand, apps that are purely based on luck (think: the digital equivalent of a slot machine for kids) aren't always the best choice.
4. Is my child's information protected?
Many apps ask for a child's name or age to personalize it or verify that the user is old enough. But be cautious of apps that ask for too much information, such as their address or geolocation.
There's little risk in giving anonymous data, since it's typically used to help developers improve the app's functionality. But information that's being collected in order to target advertising at children can be of greater concern, as it can manipulate ads to be more effective.
Apple's App Store now includes detailed privacy information that helps you understand each app's data collection practices. Google announced that its Play Store will follow suit in 2022. In the meantime, I recommend checking out PrivacyGrade.org, which analyzes the privacy settings of more than 1 million Android mobile device apps.
5. Does the app align with my child's abilities?
The first four questions lead to this final and most important one: Based on what I know about my child, does the app seem like a good match?
Take into consideration your child's age, maturity level and ability to self-regulate. The app should also align with their unique interests and disposition. Previous experience with similar apps can be a good indicator for potential success with a new app as well.
My daughter has shown that she can responsibly use social media, while my son has not yet demonstrated that level of maturity. On the other hand, my son loves creating music and is very interested in using apps that support this activity, even though my daughter wouldn't find them interesting at all.
It's also healthy to occasionally suggest new apps to help our kids explore other topics and digital activities that they might not otherwise find on their own.
Richard Culatta is the author of "Digital for Good: Raising Kids to Thrive in an Online World" and the CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education, or ISTE, a nonprofit serving education leaders in 127 countries. Prior to ISTE, Richard was appointed by former President Barack Obama to lead the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Educational Technology. Follow him on Twitter @RCulatta.
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