Kids and Mobile Apps — Think Before You Gift

As parents throughout the region wrap up iPod Touches, smartphones and tablets for their children, let's look at the issues in general and the FTC's latest report on privacy in apps designed for children.

There are going to be a lot of Internet-enabled devices under Christmas trees and wrapped up for Hanukkah. According to Nielsen Research, the iPad is the number one item on the most-desired electronics list for kids this year. Following behind is the iPod touch, iPhone, tablet and other computers. Add in any smartphone and a lot of kids want devices that can play apps available from Apple's App store and the Google play store.

While the question of whether most-wanted will be the most received is a separate discussion, we all know that many kids will soon be dowloading their favorite games as Apps on their new devices. Questions of content, payment and ground rules for both screen time and appropriate use all need to be considered.

Remember that these are small computers with full access to the Internet

People often forget that despite their size, these are computers that connect to the internet. Most will rely on Wi-Fi in your home or elsewhere but some tablets and all smartphones will also have a cellular data connection. They have cameras for videochatting and image sharing. Don't drop your guard. A child, even older teenagers, need your help protecting themselves from the bad choices others and themselves will inevitably make. A great resource to explore the issues is the Family Online Safety Institute. I especially like the Family Online Safety Contract which spells out the responsibilities and rules in establishing your family's own guidelines.

Consider restricting the hours of access, installing parental control software on your internet connection and on their devices and keeping bedrooms off limits for device use. Google has guidelines for family safety that include setting limits on your account (which covers the Google play store, YouTube and Google Talk). Apple has parental controls over what is available in iTunes but doesn't cover the browser, that needs to be set in Safari or whichever browser is added to your Apple device.

Consider getting an app like Net Nanny (available on both Google play and Amazon's app store as a free Android app) or K9 on the iTunes App store.

Protect your wallet from app and in-app purchases

The initial purchase of these devices can just be the beginning of damage to your bank account. Between downloaded movies, music and apps, if you aren't careful with rule-setting you may find that your credit card could be hit with big bills from digital content.

To enable any iOS device, an iTunes account is required. To set up an iTunes account you need to provide a credit or debit card. To protect your family's budget use a pre-paid credit card. Apple says that you can't use gift cards but if you register the card online with your address it should be able to be verified. You can add credit with iTunes gift cards to limit spending.

You can also require password authorization for any purchases including in-app purchases. Some games will have a free version, but then sell more in game products, added game time or other goodies via purchase. If you don't require a password, your child could inadvertently spends hundreds of dollars. And don't share your password with your children as a matter of convenience. Last spring the Washington Post published a story about a young girl who spent $1,400 in a Smurfs app.

Kids are better detectives than you may realize, so a password alone may not be enough. By using a prepaid card carrying enough of a balance to satisfy the $1 authorization check, you can ensure that you don't expose your family's bank balance or credit card availability.

Privacy, it isn't so clear

We are living in a complicated time. Each time we go online, or use our smartphone we need to be aware that we are sharing information as we go. We all know that Facebook and Google collects information about us to sell advertising. Your 'free' Gmail account scans your email contents to collect information to deliver targeted ads. So-called Big Data is the aggregation of this information about you collected online and in other ways such as credit card use, store loyalty cards and insurance information that is cut up and diced to yield marketing information to craft a profile of you for companies' own use or to sell to others.

You can opt-out, filter and privacy protect when you are aware of the policies of each site owner, app developer or software package. If you are especially careful you can read each of the EULAs (End-User License Agreements) that most of us simply click through and choose not to use the services provided if they don't protect your information. Most of use choose to give up this information about ourselves for the convenience the services that are such a part of our lives.

I bring this up here in response to the FTC's latest report on privacy in apps for children entitled Mobile Apps for Kids: Disclosures Still Not Making the Grade. They found that out of the 400 apps surveyed most didn't have proper disclosure so that parents were aware of what information was being shared about their kids.

"Overall, staff found that a majority of the apps surveyed collected or transmitted information from the mobile device. Indeed, nearly 60% (235) of the apps reviewed transmitted device ID to the developer or, more commonly, an advertising network, analytics company, or other third party. And 14 of the apps that transmitted device ID also transmitted geolocation and/or phone number. By contrast, only 20% (81) of the apps reviewed disclosed any information about the app’s privacy practices."

This collection of information on users younger than 13 may be in violation of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act. This is why sites such as Facebook do not allow children under age 13 to hold an account. Without adequate disclosures of the collection of information, it is hard as a parent to make informed choices. The best you can do is to work with trusted developers, especially those who make their privacy policies clear in a public way, at least in a website outside of the app stores.

Better to prepare now then putting restrictions after problems creep up

We are all busy and the gifts we give are meant to be fun and worry-free. We do need to realize that these are sophisticated devices and our kids might not be ready for using them without the proper "training wheels." They need to respect your rules and value the cost of these gifts.

You wouldn't give a kid car keys without rules, preparation and instruction. You wouldn't assume that just because they have their license that there wouldn't be driving mistakes. Think of these connected devices as being like cars, and keep an eye out for potential dangers. Your gift may inspire all sorts of cool explorations, artistic expression or just mindless entertainment and by laying out the rules of the road you can get everyone off on the right path.

McGruff SafeGuard December 13, 2012 at 05:38 PM
If you are looking for complete parental control for the iPhone/iPad, look into FREE McGruff SafeGuard. You probably remember McGruff “The Crime Dog” - Take A Bite Out of Crime - from your own childhood. They also provide have a Windows Parental Control software: (http://www.GoMcGruff.com). McGruff SafeGuard provides a Child Safe Browser app that is identical to Safari, and provides parents with complete control of the categories of websites that can be visited. The browser app also sends a summary of activity to the parent via email. Check out http://www.GoMcGruff.com/browser
Beth Jarvis December 13, 2012 at 07:47 PM
I love your columns, Jean. I always learn something I didn't know. One question, do any of these safeguards/parental controls pertain to Kindles or other e-readers?
Jean Westcott December 13, 2012 at 08:45 PM
Kindle added parental controls in their updates this past summer which "brings additional parental controls to Kindle Fire, including the ability to password-protect purchases, disable access to specific content libraries, and block access to the Silk Web browser." If you have an e-reader with web access (which all of the current Kindles have) you can add a parental controls app that also manages browsing. http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=apps#/ref=nb_sb_ss_i_2_8?url=search-alias%3Dmobile-apps&field-keywords=parental+control&sprefix=parental%2Cmobile-apps%2C237&rh=n%3A2350149011%2Ck%3Aparental+control .
Jean Westcott December 13, 2012 at 08:49 PM
And thank you Beth!


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