This is not a simple process, and I cannot hope to cover it all on this site, but in the next few posts, I will try to hit the high points as I see them.
Step One: Use the apps BEFORE the kids do. Period.
Now you may have a lot of reasons why you can’t and I am sure they are valid to a point, but the simple truth is, if you don’t know what your kids are playing with, how can you keep them safe from it? For the sake of simplicity, I am going to talk only about iPads here for the next little bit, but the ideas here are valid for any device. Our school uses iPads starting in second grade, so I have more experience with iOS devices around children than any other style or brand. I am not asserting that Apple is better or that iPad is more kid friendly, they are just what I have the most familiarity with at this moment. If you are the type of person that is offended because I am not being brand neutral, quit reading now. I talking about ideas and concepts, not trying to sell a product or change your mind. If I try to be brand unbiased, I will mess this up, confuse everyone and that just won’t help, so here it is, from a jaded iOS approach.
My son hears from a friend that the new app Angry Dudes Cliff Jump Assault or some such app is a lot of fun. He asks me if he can have it for his iPad. Now let me say right up front that since Apple instituted the family sharing and since I have age restrictions activated on my childrens’ accounts, they can’t just add the app themselves and this helps immensely. It keeps my child from spending my money without permission as easily, and it helps me keep age inappropriate material away from my kids. (What it doesn’t do is let me restrict by child, only by age or other presets, so don’t go thinking that Sis doesn’t have it because she didn’t ask my approval, if it fits the presets and I approve it for junior, sis can go get it too, without asking. Permission has already been given. You are not approving the child, you are approving the software and what keeps it from the child is the age restriction or content preset.) Back to my example. I am working, I get a notification on my phone that says junior wants Angry Dudes Cliff Jump Assault.
What do I do? Well, I don’t just click approve. I wait till I have a free minute and can give it my attention, then I open the app in the app store. I look it over. Does it look wholesome? Are there things on it or in its graphics or ratings that immediately disqualify it? If not, I look at the price. If it is free, I immediately try to see how the company gets paid. (generally speaking, developers don’t work for free… ) Is the fee structure reasonable? Is it going to continually ping me for cash? Is it structured in a way that junior will be continually begging me to approve spending? If I approve of the fee schedule and it looks like it will be a value to me and junior and I feel it is initially safe, I load it ON MY OWN iPad. I still have not approved it for junior. He is still bugging for it, but I don’t mind and I will not give in to quiet him. NOTE: This is NOT convenient. Good parenting often is inconvenient. I need to be sure the app is appropriate for him. I also am keeping in mind that as soon as I approve it for him, I am approving it for anyone else in the family share that has that age range approved…
Now the app in question is loaded on MY device. Did anything change? Did it break my iPad? Does all my stuff still work? (Seriously, there was an app that slowed everything down to a crawl the second it was installed once.) Did it ask for a bunch of permissions? Does it use location services? If so, do I trust that and want some software company tracking my child?!? Maybe, but the checklist has to be followed and I have to decide for my self what I want my child to have access to and be exposed to, so I continue. If it is a game, I play through the first few levels, events, screens or boards, depending on the structure of the app. No matter what the software is, use it for a while, don’t be in a hurry, this is the safety of your children and the tranquility of suburban life as you know it at stake here… OK, maybe not all that, but do your job, don’t hurry it.
After I have used it for a substantial time, I need to go through the post test question checklist with this new app. Does it have a bunch of content that I now need to buy to keep using it? Has anything that I consider to be a red flag jumped out at me? Am I concerned about anything I have seen or heard so far? Then comes the question that needs the most thought and could be the most important. How do I feel? Think about this for a few moments. Take a mental and physical inventory of your current state. Am I stressed out, anxious or tweaking? If I am, will my child feel the same way? Do I like that? Do I like how the app is making me feel? Am I sweating? How is my heart rate? Remember, the affects of the app will likely be similar on your child as they are on you. Next, ask yourself what I consider the second most important question, are you having fun using the app? Really, games, of course, should all be fun, if they are not, what is the purpose, but even other apps, productivity or music or whatever should be fun or at least pleasant to use. Does it make me happy? Am I experiencing a positive return from the act of using this app on this device? Life is too short and too frail to encumber it further with artificial stress. Let’s look at this theory in practice. If there is a camera filter app that my daughter wants and I use it for a while and find that it is really cumbersome and not well written and I am always frustrated when I try to use it, I shouldn’t use it!
However, I remember the age of the child asking and I know my daughter, so I sit down with my child and discuss those feelings and the outcome, the reason she wants it and what our plan will be if it doesn’t work well for her before I approve it. In many cases, they are already aware of the limitations of the app and are asking for it to achieve a specific desired result and are willing to deal with the frustration, but if they just want it because they want to have fun and it is not by nature fun, I may veto it just based on that no matter what they say. Why would I want my child to have any frustration that can be avoided? Again, I am the responsible party, I can’t ever forget that and neither should you. The last question in the post-use checklist is, do I want to keep this app for myself. Seriously, this question has very little to do with my kids, I may just want this app for myself too. More times than not, since my kids are so much like me, we have similar interests and apps are no exception. My kids have clued me into a bunch of really great apps that I use all the time. If I am having a busy day, I could test the app and approve or deny it, then delete it only to find that a few days later I really want it back and have to try and remember what it was or go find it in their purchases history. It’s easier to just ask the question now. Do I want it? Also of note here is the fact that the app in question may NOT pass the test for one of my kids but may pass the test for me. If it does, I keep it (special note here, if you have a teenager and their age restrictions are high, approving it for me in the store MAY also approve it for them. Keep that in mind). This is not about being fair, it is about parenting, and like a nice glass of wine with dinner, there is plenty of content out there that is perfectly fine for me, even helpful, that I would NEVER approve for my children and that is just fine.
I know my list may not be perfect for your family, but it is a start, a place for you to begin and start talking. I encourage you to make your own pre and post install app checklist. Discuss with your spouse what is appropriate for your family culture, and build your app approval procedure based on that. Remember, don’t get hung up on the details, it isn’t about how specifically you parent, what methods and procedures you use, it is THAT you parent and THAT you have methods that you create with thoughtful intent and for the purpose of nurturing and protecting your children. Good luck! Battle on and your persistence will be rewarded in the end.