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Mind the Rules When Building Apps for Kids

| January 8, 2020

Apps for children are becoming increasingly popular. The popularity and functionality of the iPad series, for example, makes it a great platform for app developers. For children, the iPad is popular because it is light, powerful and highly intuitive. Children can draw, play games, create art, watch videos, learn new skills, read a book and have fun. While putting your child in front of the TV to keep them busy was once the norm, now they can learn and develop motor skills playing educational games on the iPad.

However, app developers should heed privacy concerns, particularly when developing an app for children. In 2012, the FTC issued a report focusing on the need to protect child’s privacy. Many children’s apps did not make the grade, and there is pressure on the government to act. 

“Our study shows that kids’ apps siphon an alarming amount of information from mobile devices without disclosing this fact to parents,” said FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz. “All of the companies in the mobile app space, especially the gatekeepers of the app stores, need to do a better job. “

What the report said about kids app regulations

“Most apps failed to provide any information about the data collected through the app, let alone the type of data collected, the purpose of the collection, and who would obtain access to the data.   Even more troubling, the results showed that many of the apps shared certain information with third parties – such as device ID, geolocation, or phone number – without disclosing that fact to parents.  Further, a number of apps contained interactive features – such as advertising, the ability to make in-app purchases, and links to social media – without disclosing these features to parents prior to download.”

The FTC has suggested changes to ensure parents are better informed, including:

  • Incorporating privacy protections into the design of mobile products and services;
  • Offering parents easy-to-understand choices about the data collection and sharing through kids’ apps; and
  • Providing greater transparency about how data is collected, used, and shared through kids’ apps.

Transparency is key. App developers also need to be mindful of current privacy rules and understand how such government reports can heighten parental concerns – and possibly encourage app stores to take action that could potentially limit the success of an app.

Today, unfortunately, things are not much better when it comes to regulations on kids apps. In September 2020, a survey found that 72/100 childrens’ mobile apps had taken information from devices without parental consent or knowledge. Although COPPA (children’s online protection act) rules about data privacy and sharing are strict, many can still find ways to circumvent them.

Many fears center around the ease through which child traffickers could gain access to a child’s geographic location, name, and age. The average age for a child to start using an iPhone is 11 years old, and many start before then. The app store contains very little protection and security so children gain easy access and can download almost any app to their phones. The gatekeeping of children on apps leaves much to be desired.

To avoid safety and ethics breaches, Android and iPhone app developers need to ask themselves: Have we provided clear, accessible disclosure to parents regarding what information is being collected? And who is using that information and for what purpose? Posting a privacy policy will go a long way to assuaging parental concerns and ensuring the best user experience.

What can parents do to keep their kids safe on apps?

First of all, make sure your location sharing is always off. Your child sharing their location accidentally with bad actors is one of the biggest privacy concerns. There are also parental controls now that can be installed on phones to monitor screen time and app settings among other things. Lastly, ALWAYS read the terms and conditions before downloading an app for your child. 

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