Most people do weeks of research before buying a car or other consumer goods. But they'll download a 99-cent application, or app, for their mobile phone or tablet in a few seconds.
Doing a little more consumer research on these small purchases is a good idea, especially if children are going to be using them. Finding out what kind of content the app might expose them to, such as violent game play, and what kinds of information the app may be collecting about them, has become a concern for many parents.
Like movies and games, apps are rated by age levels. But the ratings system varies from platform to platform: Apple, Android and Windows each has its own system, creating a confusing alphabet soup of categories.
Apple's iTunes store uses the following age categories: 4+, 9+, 12+ and 17+. The rating of 4+ is suitable for all ages, with no objectionable material; 17+ means the buyer must be at least 17, and that the app contains offensive language, fantasy or realistic violence, horror, sexual content, alcohol, tobacco or drug use.
Google Play store apps are rated in four categories -- Everyone, Low Maturity, Medium Maturity and High Maturity. Criteria include references to alcohol, tobacco and drugs, real or simulated gambling, profanity, suggestive content and realistic violence. Apps that share the user's location with others must be rated medium to high maturity.
Apps for Windows mobile devices follow the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) system that's used to rate video games. Its categories: Everyone, Early Childhood, Everyone 10+, Teen Mature and Adult Only. Users must be 18 or older to access the last category.
App developers are responsible for evaluating and rating their app content.
The lack of a standardized system for rating apps makes a complicated issue even more confusing for parents.
"Unifying this at one level makes a lot of sense," said Scott Weiner, an app developer in Mansfield, Mass. "The problem is, right now it's still an immature market. It's not at the point where you can say it's unified and there's a clear set of leaders in the industry.
"As a parent and a developer, I'd rather make it the parent's choice and make it easy for them to see the issues and let them make the decision."
Content isn't the concern in the app industry. Apps can collect information about users, including their location. They can connect and post information to social networks like Facebook. Some contain in-app purchases, where the user can buy enhanced features for the game. Many free apps -- and some paid ones -- contain advertising that parents may not want their kids to see.
In February, the Federal Trade Commission issued a report that raised concerns about the lack of disclosure as far as app privacy practices and interactive features and called on sellers and developers to be more transparent about data practices.
A follow-up FTC survey during the summer of 2012 found that the situation hadn't improved much. Using the keyword "kids," FTC staff chose 400 apps at random from the Google Play and iTunes stores, looking for interactive features such as advertising, in-app purchases, links to social media and whether the app collected or transmitted any information from the mobile device they were tested on.
Among the findings:
• 60 percent of the apps transmitted the device ID to the developer or an advertising network; 14 of these also transmitted geolocation and/or phone number.
• Only 20 percent disclosed information about their privacy practices.
• 58 percent contained advertising, and only 15 percent indicated the presence of ads prior to downloading.
• 22 percent had links to social networking services; 9 percent disclosed these links prior to download.
• 3 percent transmitted the user's geolocation and 1 percent transmitted the device's phone number.
"[The] industry appears to have made little or no progress in improving its disclosures since the first kids' app survey was conducted, and the new survey confirms that undisclosed sharing is occurring on a frequent basis," the FTC report concluded. Easy-to-understand disclosures about privacy practices "were far from the norm, and most apps failed to provide basic information about what data would be collected from kids, how it would be used, and with whom it would be shared."
The Children's Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 is designed to protect children online and gives parents control over what information websites can collect about their kids. On Dec. 19, the FTC announced several amendments to this act. They include adding geolocation information, photographs, and videos to the list of personal information that can't be collected without parental consent, and closing a loophole that has allowed apps and websites aimed at kids to let third parties collect personal information about them through plug-ins without parental notice and consent.
Some developers who create apps for younger audiences have banded together in online communities such as Parents With Apps and Moms With Apps.
Ann and Jon Adair, a Tampa, Fla.-based husband-wife team and parents of two, launched an educational app company, Thinkamingo, in November 2011. They also are active with the Moms With Apps developers community. "We're trying to make sure that good apps are being discovered, so that your diet is not all Angry Birds," Ms. Adair said.
She believes that controlling what children see online begins at home. "The parent should really be the gateway" and actively monitor what apps their children are using. "A device is not a substitute for interaction with a parent. We all want our 8-year-old to stop asking us questions for five minutes while we finish making dinner, but that doesn't mean they should have free rein over that device."
Mr. Weiner, a mobile app and web developer in Mansfield, Mass., was at the dinner table one evening with his family and noticed that the kids were engrossed in their mobile devices. So he built an application designed to make devices a way for families to communicate, rather than separating them. The iPhone/iPad app -- A Family Matters -- sparks conversation on interesting topics and helps keep kids amused during long road trips or while waiting in long lines. And it launched Weiner Family Studios, which has produced a collection of other kid-focused apps. He also manages the Parents With Apps online developers forum.
Apps that collect information aren't necessarily evil, Mr. Weiner points out. For example, if an app doesn't collect information for targeted advertising, a child could end up being exposed to ads aimed at an adult audience. "If you're going to do advertising, targeting makes more sense," Mr. Weiner said. "I'd rather my kid get a Disney ad than a beer commercial."
There are things parents can do to preserve their children's online safety and privacy. The simplest: don't give them the account password. When they want an app, check it out first and download it for them.
Apple devices have settings controls that can be used to set limits for what age level apps a child will be able to download. Changing these settings will delete already downloaded apps with a higher maturity rating. Parents can also turn off in-app purchases. A new feature in Apple's iOS 6 mobile operating system called Guided Access lets the parent lock an app while a child is using it, so the child can't move on to another one without the parent knowing about it.
Google apps can be filtered for content by going to the Google Play account settings.
Many developers are upfront about outlining their privacy policies and what kinds of information they collect. Others are not. But there are several websites where parents can look up app ratings and find out what kinds of information they harvest about their users.
Secure Me, at https://apps.secure.me, has information on a slew of apps: Type a name in the search box, and Secure Me will give indicate what kind of information the app might post on Facebook, what kind of personal information it requests (name, gender, photo, Facebook ID), if it accesses data when the user is offline, if it accesses friends' information or posts to one's Facebook Timeline.
The same app ratings information also is available on the ESRB site, along with other resources for parents at www.esrb.org/about/resources.jsp.
Adrian McCoy: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1865.