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Children and Media

Home » Articles »

How to Choose iPhone Apps for Kids

By Elizabeth Lyons

Is anyone else fascinated when parents turn to their offspring for help programming (or even answering) their smartphones? Children's seemingly pre-wired proficiency with today's technology is amazing. The high-tech world is advancing at lightning speed, and as "digital natives," no one's adapting more quickly than kids.

Case in point, toddlers love to talk on the telephone. They've always loved talking on the telephone. Today's toddlers, however, are infatuated with cell phones, and parents beware: even a 20-month-old knows the difference between the real deal and a toy stand-in (and far prefer the former).

It's not surprising, therefore, that according to a recent CNN report, four of the top 10 best-selling educational iPhone apps are designed for children under the age of five. And the benefits of such advanced technology may go beyond mere distraction from a checkout line's candy display.

The Benefits of Apps

According to developmental psychologist Peter Gray, engaging with an app is preferable to a passive activity such as watching TV. "[Kids are] interested in tools where they can actually make something happen," notes Gray, which isn't surprising because "we are a tool-using species."

"These 'mobile kids' are the purest breed yet of natives to the wireless world where the rest of us are refugees," concurs Neil Swidey through a Boston Globe article. "Parents use [digital technology] to distract a less-than-thrilled child in the grocery store, but quickly become amazed by how instinctively tech-savvy even a toddler is. This generation will use technology far more than we can even imagine today."

"Touch-based devices like the iPhone and iPad harness this fundamental human instinct and remove the complexity of the keyboard and mouse for interacting with the computer," notes Bryan O'Malley of "As a result, it's possible for young children to explore the world of computer learning at a much younger age."

Abbie Davies, president of My First Yoga, also agrees that many apps are "beneficial for the younger set." Yet she also points out that "while apps can both educate and stimulate, just like any other form of media, it is important for parents to make informed decisions about the apps being downloaded for or by their children." 

Criteria for Choosing Appropriate Downloads

Parents who turn to apps as a way to educate, entertain or merely distract their children are overwhelmed by the thousands of options combined with hundreds of ratings and user comments. What guidelines can parents use to make informed decisions regarding which apps to download – and which to avoid?

Brett Singer, the founder of, advises "I'm very careful about what apps I put on the device because there is no way (that I know of) to block inappropriate content. I either stay with certain publishers (Sesame Street apps are always appropriate), or try the app out myself before I give it to the kids."

User reviews and comments can also point parents in the right direction. Notes Singer, "Reading user reviews on the iTunes store helps, and online app guides are a good place to start. The posted age ranges are useful, but like movie ratings, parents should consider their own values and standards."

"When choosing an iPhone app for a child of any age," advises Davies, "make sure to think about [your] objectives. Will this app be an educational tool? A time filler? Even if an app is amazingly educational, it's always important to remember to encourage using apps in moderation."

Lynette Mattke, co-founder of MomsWithApps and Publisher at PicPocket Books, reminds parents to "remember [that] kids are best engaged when the features in an app address as many senses as possible and when these features offer variations on a theme, and are not too repetitive. For instance, putting different outfits on different characters offers variation and holds a child's interest, while shooting or popping identical objects gets repetitive."

Mattke also recommends book apps, which are "fun and educational, and often stimulate conversations that continue long after the device is put away."

"A 'bookapp,'" notes Mattke, "is a term used to describe a book that is downloaded as an app and displayed to be read on the iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad. Some bookapps have animations and other interactive features. Most have audio recordings."

When to Be Cautious About Apps

Possibly more important than knowing what to look for in choosing an appropriate app is knowing what to stay away from. The most important goal is protecting a child's privacy and ensuring his safety.

To that end, Stanley Holditch of advises parents to be wary of apps that require peer interaction. "Marketers and app developers are quickly learning that kids are the most active social networkers," warns Holditch. "Peer interaction at young ages can and does lead to cyberbullying. Parents should base their decisions on whether or not to allow a child to engage in peer interaction through social networks and apps based on the child's maturity level and the average maturity level of their peers [rather than] the age requirements of the network or app."

Another feature of which parents should be wary: geolocation apps. "Foursquare, Facebook, Twitter, GoWalla and even Apple's MobileMe data network are all embracing geolocation as the latest way to bring people together," mentions Holditch. "Parents need to be wary of this trend, since the essential component to all geolocation apps is revealing the user's location in real-time. Depending on how vigilant the child/parent is about privacy settings, these apps are capable of revealing the child's exact location in real-time to complete strangers."

The Future of Apps

There's no arguing that we're only at the beginning of the app revolution.

According to Casey Ayers, president of MegatonApps, we should "expect educational gaming to take the forefront in kid-targeted apps," while Jesse Feiler, author of Get Rich With Apps believes that "lots of drawing programs" will soon hit the market. William Weil, co-founder and CEO of Tales2Go, believes that "niche educational apps…within categories such as behavior, writing, science, math" are about to break loose.

Barbara Pritchard, executive producer at Smashing Devices, believes that the children's book publishing industry will hit the app world by storm. "Enhanced books allow us (as designers and producers) to add interactivity into the reading experience, fully engaging kids and encouraging them to want to read more. [Of the] Top 10 titles in the iTunes iPad app store for kids, five are ebook titles. We think this trend will only continue to get bigger."

O'Malley summed up the trajectory of iPhone apps by noting, "I suspect that someday we'll look back at the early 2000's as a major turning point in the way we consume information. Our children will be the first to grow up in the Touch Generation. Without the steep computer learning curve that past children faced, imagine how much faster these kids will be absorbing information?"

Imagine, indeed!

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Elizabeth Lyons is an author and mom of five. Her most recent book, You Cannot Be Serious: and 32 Other Rules that Sustain a (Mostly) Balanced Mom is an Amazon Top 5 Best-Seller.
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