Trends – 100+ Reviews – In-App Marketing & Other Features Kids Apps Could Do Without

| April 26, 2011 | 11 Comments

Reading a picture book on an iPad can be an amazing experience. There is so much that can be added in this new medium. There are also some unique challenges that don’t come up in print books. In addition to books that are too stimulating for bedtime (or too noisy for a quiet waiting room), it’s possible to have books with features that challenge our ideas of what is appropriate in a product aimed at kids.

These features vary from app to app, but I’ve seen a lot of things that give me pause. If you share an iDevice with a child, I’m sure you have your pet peeves too. Maybe you will be able to relate to the following things that bug me in children’s apps:

Website Links

Often apps, including those aimed at children, have links that lead to the internet. Usually these are links to the development company’s website or for related content, like on-line games associated with the app. The websites are almost always appropriate for children to view, but the point is that they lead the child away from the intended activity.

Solicitation of User Information

Sometimes kids apps have features, often accessible from the home page of the app, that ask the user to share personal information. Often this is just an email address to join a mailing list about the app. Other times it can include location information set up with a simple tap of ‘allow’.

Email Links

Apps sometimes have features that access email. These can involve sending a child’s creations to someone, a personalized note based on the app’s characters or other fun ideas. However, most young kids I know don’t use email much. It might be nice to send something to grandma once in awhile, but I suspect it’s much more likely that my child will accidentally email someone I’d rather not bother.

App Store Links & In-App Purchases

Many apps cross-promote their other apps at the beginning or end of a story. Once I even had a book that embedded the promotion in the middle of the book. No one likes it when their child begs for something after seeing an ad, but this is particularly unpleasant if it happens every time you get to the end of your new favorite bedtime story.  I understand that app developers need to take advantage of the chance for cross promotion, but having audio that suggests in a tantalizing way that I ‘buy more books’ may be overkill.

In order for a child to actually buy something, they would need your iTunes password, whether it’s for in-app purchasing or through the app store. With the new iOS 4.3, in-app purchases need a password entered every time, but the app store itself still has a 15 minute setting. If you’ve logged in the past 15 minutes, the child can have free reign to re-enter the app store with a blank check. Even if you’re aware of this, life is a moving target as a parent and forgetting even once could be very expensive.

Saving to Photos

A lot of apps for kids use the device’s capacity to save to your photos. Often these are coloring or other creativity activities bundled with a digital book. This means your child can save an indefinite number of screen shots to your photos. It is nice to save a child’s digital artwork once in awhile, but I find this feature can get annoying, especially in apps for children under 5. It can even begin to tax your device’s memory if you have a 16GB iPad and a very prolific young artist.

Advertising In-App

Sometimes kids apps have advertising inside the app for other products. The apps are often free, although the real cost is exposure to ads. I am often asked to review books with this type of in-app advertising. As a general rule, though, I won’t review books with ads unless there is a paid version without ads (or a way to pay in-app to turn the ads off). I realize some parents will still go with the free ad-based version, but at least I can spare my own child the exposure.

I do feel for developers trying to figure out the best way to get compensation for their hard work developing apps, but I just can’t see any way in which advertising within an app for kids can be acceptable. Like many parents, I feel pretty strongly about protecting my own child from advertising as much as I can. When I do my book reviews, my child previews the apps with me. I’m not comfortable with my preschooler being an advertising target, so how could I recommend these apps in good conscience for someone else’s child?

So, what’s a developer to do?

Developers are in a tough spot when creating apps for kids, especially with so many apps competing for our limited attention spans. Ideally, developers should eliminate these features in apps for very young children. When that isn’t possible, alerting buyers to these features clearly in the app’s description and/or in a note upon opening the app would be a decent compromise. Then give parents a way to turn these features off when setting up the app for their child, possibly in the settings menu of the device. Ultimately, parents want to have their judgement respected by being informed that these features exist since we are accountable for the consequences.

And what’s a parent to do?

Turning off wi-fi or going in to airplane mode is always an option to consider in the meantime. That’s really the only way to be 100% sure that your child isn’t going to end up on the internet or sending email. This also disables some of the in-app advertising in many cases, although some apps with ads won’t work without an internet connection. You can also turn off in-app purchasing. See Avoid Accidental App Purchases! How To Turn Off In-App Purchasing.

We should also be prepared as parents to pay for good content in kids apps and accept some advertising efforts aimed at us, instead of our children. Ultimately parents are the decision makers for most app purchases and a much more acceptable target for direct advertising efforts. As more parents seek out alternatives to the app store for shopping and reviews, these sites should be good places to move some of those ads.

Some good reading on this issue:

Smart Rules of Thumb for Children’s App Use

App Craze Among Kids a Challenge for Advertisers

Adproofing your kids – raising critical thinkers in a media-saturated world

And what are your pet peeves in kids apps?

Category: 100+ Reviews ... What I've Learned So Far, All About Apps, Marketing Apps

About the Author ()

Carisa Kluver is the the editor of Digital-Storytime.com, an iPad children's book review site. She has a BA in Anthropology from UC Berkeley and an MSW from the University of Washington. Before starting this project, she was a school counselor, health educator and researcher in child & maternal health.