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Mobile App Ratings: Why Parents Should be Careful

written by: •edited by: Carly Stockwell•updated: 11/2/2012

Are all apps safe for your teen to download and use? Learn what the app rating system means and why you should still be concerned about what is available for your child to download.

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    Editor's Note: Russ Warner is CEO of ContentWatch, maker of the top-rated desktop and mobile web filter Net Nanny. He is used as an expert source in the national press on a regular basis and speaks regularly on the topic of Internet Safety.

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    48E05974-5DD6-496E-A78E-93A92C2359CF Smartphones and tablets are all the rage and there are at least 700,000 apps now in the iTunes Store and in Google Play. You probably have dozens on your phone or tablet right now.

    What about apps for your kids? There are tons of child-friendly apps for ages from Elementary School kids to teens. Unfortunately, the challenge is finding apps that are truly child-friendly.

    App Ratings

    Google Play and the iTunes Store have a rating system in place for apps. But the ratings are a bit vague, inconsistent, potentially lenient, and can effectively put inappropriate apps in the hands of a child. Apps are not rated by Apple or Google, but by developers who write them. As such, some apps can be rated inappropriately. If you want to see the policies, go to the Google Play Developer Program or the iTunes Store.

    Google Play group apps into four ratings: Everyone, Low Maturity, Medium Maturity and High Maturity.

    Apple has four categories: 4+, 9+, 12+ and 17+. So are these even close to being the same? What do these mean?

    Well, a “medium maturity” Android app can include profanity, crude humor, sexually suggestive material, fantasy violence, simulated gambling, references to drugs or alcohol and hate speech.

    And a “12+” iOS app can contain mild language, fantasy or realistic violence, mild mature or suggestive themes, and simulated gambling.

    Parents should have a reasonable understanding of app ratings before setting kids loose in the store. For example, an app with a 12+ rating might sound perfectly fine for teenagers, but the "SnapChat" app demonstrates that this clearly isn’t always the case. SnapChat is an iOS app that allows you to send text messages or pictures that self-destruct after a short period of time. Hypothetically, you use it to send photos or to draw and send those pics to friends--so you can both have a laugh. But teens know this app can be used for sending sexually explicit texts (sexts).

    SnapChat's Android counterpart is called "Fancy Snap" and is also rated Medium. Both allow you to send sexts without regard for consequence.

    What Should Parents Do?

    Rather than trusting the app rating system, parents must use their own judgment. Only a parent knows what is appropriate for his or her child. Take charge of the situation and set rules for your kids, such as not letting them download apps without your approval to use them.

    In addition, you should consider using an app manager on your Android phone or tablet to block apps from being used without permission. If you have an iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad, Apple allows you to disable in-app purchases or downloading apps and much more. The KindleFire also has some parental controls features.

    This interest in parental controls on behalf of device manufacturers goes to show there are known concerns. But as always, parents should keep an open dialogue with their kids about their use of technology and get involved. Better safe now than sorry later.