Amid an explosion of kid-oriented apps for mobile devices, frustrated parents say they face an uphill battle guarding the Internet’s youngest users from inappropriate content. They complain of unreliable age and maturity ratings made by mobile software developers, sexually explicit and violent ads that show up on kids’ games, and a lack of rules to keep the massive apps industry in check.
“This is the platform of the future, and as of now it is a free-for-all, a total Wild, Wild West,” said Jim Steyer, president of children’s media advocacy group Common Sense Media, which rates mobile apps because it thinks companies’ efforts fall short.
It’s far less wild for traditional media. The Federal Communications Commission patrols the airwaves for curse words and sexual content during prime viewing hours. Hollywood’s trade group created a board to assign maturity ratings for all U.S. movies. Video-game makers do the same, even though they fight against state and federal labeling rules.
But when it comes to mobile apps, developers give themselves ratings. And the guidelines are often confusing. What constitutes “low maturity” or “medium maturity” on phones that run Google’s Android? A Google Web site states that profanity and references to drugs and sex are permitted for “medium maturity” apps, but would a parent know that from the label?
Aside from confusing ratings, there are many inaccuracies, Steyer and others say.
That was the case for Ingrid Simone, whose 5-year-old son Lawrence Patrick recently came across frightening circular saws that dismembered players of the snowboarding game iStunt 2.
The game was rated for players as young as 4, according to developer MiniClip on the Apple iTunes store. It looked harmless from the game description and still images presented at the time. So Ingrid downloaded it onto the family iPad.
“We felt like we did everything right,” Simone said. “Nowhere at the time was there any warning of the violence that came later on.” MiniClip has since added a preview image of the saws.
Some parents say they often disagree with ratings offered by developers.
On Android devices, Boy Facts is rated “low maturity,” which appears safe for older children. Yet it offers advice about how to deal with men, including “many things about sex, couple life, etc.” Despite touting lessons on how to “seduce” the “guy of your dreams,” 101 Secrets About Guys doesn’t have a maturity rating.
Resident Evil for the iPhone is rated for age 9 and older, and players wield guns to kill “blood thirsty” red-eyed zombies and monsters. (The version for video-game consoles such as the Xbox is rated for players 17 and older, though it is more violent.)