Dec. 10, 2012 at 3:11 PM ET
The FTC reminded us Monday what many a parent knows all too well: Not all kids' apps are safe, especially where privacy is concerned. So, as a parent of two small children in a house full of tablets, what do I do to keep them safe? Here are my guidelines:
Read the reviews: Parents may be the most vocal group when it comes to app reviews, and the commentary under kids' apps will tell you almost immediately if there's a concern. If you notice a bunch of five-stars and just one or two one-star reviews, you're probably safe, but if you see an issue mentioned several times, and it strikes you as a problem, walk away. There are too many kids' apps out there for any one to make or break your kid's day.
No ad-supported apps: "Free," ad-supported apps are called out by the FTC because so much information is shared with the advertiser or a third-party tracker. Paying for apps usually means you're buying insurance against some of this funny business — not just against ads, but also in-app money-making schemes. (More on that next.) Higher-quality kids' apps range from $1.99 to $6.99. That may seem "steep" in the app galaxy, but that pricing is cheaper than most children's books, and app updates usually cost nothing.
No in-app purchases: I am very much opposed to any kids' app that is offered for free, only to tease a bunch of in-app purchases, like a "free" virtual fish tank that comes with just two fish — but you can buy more for $1.99 a piece! That is a technique that is used to win over the kid first, so that a reluctant parent is guilt-tripped into spending money. Better for parent to choose to spend a fixed amount up front.
No social log-ins or sharing: My kids are way too young to "share" their drawings and other creations with the world, or care what total stranger kids out there are up to. That will change as they age, but I will always be aware of what apps make social sharing a key focus, and I'll evaluate the risks on a per-app basis.
Wall 'em off: Though my kids are mostly on iPads, I am a fan of Amazon's FreeTime kids' service, which you can use on the Kindle Fire line of tablets. Not only do parents specify exactly what apps, books and videos their kids can use, the service blocks Web browsing and in-app purchases as a rule. There's also a way to set time limits on different activities. Some elements of the "walled garden" approach are on other platforms, and I expect to see even more of this functionality from Android and iOS this year.
Play with the kids: I am pretty sure there isn't a single app that my kids have access to that I haven't played from beginning to end myself. (Usually I'm with them ... but hey, that new "Goodnight Moon" app is entertainment at any age, and I'm pretty sure I liked "Pat the Bunny" more than either of my kids!) Joking aside, I do enjoy taking the time to play with apps with them, and to watch them interact. Doing this, I can quickly spot anything problematic about the app, and swiftly remove it from the repertoire.
Some kids' app publishers I recommend:
Duck Duck Moose - From "Wheels on the Bus" to "Kindergarten Reading," there are few misses and lots of hits among the DDM lineup.
Nosy Crow - "Three Little Pigs," "Cinderella" and other classic tales told with innovative papercraft animation.
Loud Crow - Some of the best franchises ever — "Goodnight Moon," Peanuts, Sandra Boynton's goofy animals — are brought to spring-loaded life here.
Shape Minds and Moving Images: A few simple, beautiful apps such as "Nighty Night!" and "Little Fox Music Box" with a European aesthetic.
Oceanhouse Media - The app home of Dr. Seuss. Be sure to buy the apps outright, though. This publisher, though high quality, experiments with "lite" versions and in-app purchasing on free apps, so beware.
Disney - There are loads and loads of apps and games under the Disney brand, but the educational titles — such as the new "Numbers with Nemo," with a dedicated section for parents to track kid performance — are worth seeking out.