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How to choose great apps for your child

Do you worry about your kids’ screen-time? OK, that was a rhetorical question. Of course you do.

At the same time, as a savvy digital parent, you know that screen-time ain’t screen-time. 

Quantitative measures - how many hours, how many minutes, how many apps - are important, sure. But they’re far from being the whole story.

Qualitative factors are hugely important when assessing screen-time limits, too - and every cyber expert out there will tell you the same. Two hours of unboxing videos on YouTube or two hours of Fortnite or two hours on a book-creation app are three entirely different experiences. Yes, it’s all screen-time, but not all screen-time is created equal.

Jane Austen hi res

Just as an hour spent reading a gossip mag is not the equivalent of an hour with Jane Austen (although come to think of it, the two have a lot in common!) - the quality of what kids engage with on their screens matters too.


So apart from the obvious extremes - first-person shooter v. a scrapbooking app - the question remains - how do you, as a parent, make a judgment call about the content your children are engaging with? Specifically how do you distinguish a genuinely “educational” app from the millions that simply market themselves that way?

While there’s no fool-proof formula for choosing great apps for your child, here are some important questions to consider:

Is it fun?

“Fun” is impossible to quantify or even define. But it’s an essential feature of any worthwhile kids’ app. Why? Because if it’s not fun, you child won’t use it. Full stop. And the idea that “fun” and “learning” are in opposition went out with caning and dunce caps. The best learning happens when children are not even aware of it.

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Is it empowering and/or creative?

Quality content builds competencies, taking kids to the next level. A structure that involves moving ahead to ever-more-complex tasks is a feature of virtually every game that kids love to play.

There’s a flow-on effect from this tangible progress in skill-building, too. It feels good. And it makes kids feel good about themselves, too. That enhanced self-esteem is a hidden “plus” of many apps and games.

Of course, if a kid simply gets better at shooting “enemies” or virtual hoops, the offline applications are going to be limited. Look for apps and games that develop real-world skills - or at least can be applied to the offline world.

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Is it ad-free and in-app-purchases-free? It’s been said that there’s no such thing as a free app. In fact, we said it ourselves just a couple of weeks ago. (Read the blog here.) They may not come with an upfront cost, but those “free” games may be profiting from your child’s personal data, selling it to the highest bidder in an increasingly cut-throat digital marketplace.

In-app purchases are another way “free” games can rake in profits. Revenue from the free version of Fortnite, for example, recently surpassed the $1 billion mark - and it accomplished this feat almost solely by way of in-app purchases. We blogged about that too. (Read the blog here


Is it from a trusted brand? This is a tricky one, because even “quality” brands like Disney and Nickelodeon produce content that amounts to little more than aimless distraction. And if you only stick with brands you know, you can miss out on some exciting up-and-comers. But on the whole, it’s worth your while to consider the source.

Note whether  the app has been created in conjunction with educators. It’s an especially good sign of quality ahead!

Is it developmentally appropriate? What’s educational at one stage of a child’s development can be frustrating, boring or worse at another stage. As a general rule of thumb, look for challenges that are just a bit beyond where your child is at developmentally, and then support her as she extends herself.

Observe your child closely - and be prepared to be surprised by what you find. For instance, recent research found that preschoolers learned more watching a video of someone else playing a math game than they did playing the game themselves. At a different developmental stage, the results would have been much different.

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Is it safe? Any app or game that includes live-streaming is by definition risky. This feature attracts child predators like no other. Chat with strangers is also a hazard for children - despite the protests of developers that conversations are moderated. Privacy settings are another feature parents can vet. Is there a way to set up the app to protect your child from unwanted attention or abuse?

What do the experts say? Family Zone’s acclaimed team of cyber experts - including psychologists, researchers, child development specialists, and law enforcement experts - reviews new apps as they launch. Subscribers can access these exclusive guidelines, which include age recommendations and risk-assessments, at any time.

Another respected online resource is Common Sense Media, where you’ll find both specialist and parent reviews. And speaking of parents - don’t forget to check in with other mums and dads with children of a similar age who’ve used the app. You may not always agree with their assessment, but you’ll definitely add to your knowledge base.


Knowing what apps to block or limit is part of a digital parent’s job. But helping children to find great online content is an important part of the job description too. At Family Zone, we’re committed to helping parents and schools raise a healthy, balanced digital generation. To learn more, visit us at familyzone.com.

Topics: Parental Controls, Screen time, app reviews

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