Teacher, chef, referee, nurse, chauffeur—parents today are constantly switching between a lot of different hats. Amid all of the responsibilities, it can feel like an overwhelming task to vet all the apps that kids want to download. There is often a long list of games, messengers and platforms that kids are eager to add to their collection, and with over two million to choose from, it can be tough to tell the good from the bad. But, there are a few questions parents can ask that will help make it easier to determine if an app is worth installing.
What will your kid being doing with the app?
Online activities fall into one of four categories: consumption, connection, creativity or cultivation. The first, consumption, tends to be passive and less constructive (think: watching YouTube on auto-play or scrolling TikTok videos). On the other hand, connection, creativity and learning are active, skill-building activities.
When you’re considering an app for your kids, it’s a good idea to prioritize ones where they’re connecting with loved ones, exploring their creativity or discovering and cultivating new interests and passions. Make a point to download any prospective apps on your own device first and get a sense of how it works: if it’s active and constructive, it’s more likely to be time well spent.
Does the app connect your kid with other people? And if so, how?
Many apps targeted at children include some kind of messaging component, allowing kids to connect with other users. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing—but parents will want to pay close attention to how it happens. Be on the lookout for apps with robust safeguards that allow you to control and approve who can connect with your kids. Pay special attention to the invitation system—and avoid ones that require a public profile, or where users can send direct messages to people not in their contacts list. For older kids who are ready to manage their own connections, it’s also a good idea to periodically sit down together and have them show you who they are connected to across all their apps.
Are there any privacy concerns?
Here’s a quick tip: The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) lays out some stringent rules for apps targeted at children under 13. The legislation dictates what kind of information companies can collect from children—and how they can use that information. It requires “verifiable parental consent,” meaning that they can’t collect any data from your kid without your explicit permission. If the app you’re considering is COPPA-compliant, then that’s a good starting point. If your kids are interested in an adult app, it’s important to understand that those apps play by different rules. They can collect a lot more information and they can use that data in a lot more ways (like targeted advertising). Many hugely popular apps and platforms have problematic privacy track records, and it’s a good idea to do a quick search to see if the platform in question has a history of any egregious violations—and be wary of what information you’re sharing if they do.
What do the reviews say?
You can learn a lot about an app by what other parents are saying. It’s always a good idea to scan App Store and Play Store reviews when you’re considering downloading something for your kids—but it can be tricky to glean details if reviewers don’t include an explanation with their star ratings. That’s where resources like Common Sense Media can be helpful. This organization does in-depth reviews for all sorts of media directed at kids. You can run through all the pros and cons, see age recommendations and learn about red flags for many of the top kids’ apps out there.
What does your kid have to say?
In all of your researching, perhaps one of the most important factors to consider is your kid. Having a conversation with them about the app and why they want to use it will help you better understand what they’re hoping to get out of it. This is also a great way to talk about how you expect them to behave while they’re using the app. If you decide to give an app the green light, this is your opportunity to lay down ground rules—and outline what will happen if they don’t follow them. Having this clarity ahead of time gets everyone on the same page and helps avoid misunderstandings and meltdowns.
There is a wide spectrum of apps out there: some are wonderful tools for kids, encouraging them to strengthen relationships, express themselves and learn new things. Others are less constructive and potentially dangerous. Choosing one can seem like a daunting task—but asking the right questions up front can give you confidence that you’re giving your kids the best of technology, without exposure to the worst of it.