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What Makes an App Great for Kids Might Surprise You

By Published on .

Illustration by Pete Ryan

When Raul Gutierrez's son was in kindergarten, he asked if he could give up his birthday party and get an iPhone instead. "I was horrified," Gutierrez says. "This was the centerpiece of his year, and he was willing to sell out his friends for this ... thing."

His son got the phone.

A growing number of parents either hand over their own phones and tablets to their tiny tots or buy them screens of their own. Forty-two percent of children under eight have their own devices, according to the nonprofit Common Sense Media. More startling, their mobile use is up almost 1,000 percent in the past several years—from five minutes per day in 2011 to 48 minutes per day in 2017, the organization says.

Those little black mirrors have a very dark side: The American Academy of Pediatrics, in a policy statement that came out in 2016, "Media and Young Minds," cites the potential for addictive use and effects on sleep, weight, attention, mental health, behavior and more. That concern has gotten louder. Over the past 12 months alone, shareholders have called on Apple to fund more research and create better parental controls; consumer groups have been pressuring Facebook to yank Messenger Kids, aimed at users as young as 6; and YouTube faced a furor over creepy and exploitive videos that its algorithm was automatically recommending as children's fare, and is on the ropes for excessive advertising in its Kids app.

For kids' interactive content companies, it's a tough time to be in the business. But when the tech is good, it can help young people learn and spark their imaginations. "It's an everything machine," in the words of Gutierrez's son.

Slot machines vs. sandboxes

The No. 3 category in Apple's App Store is education, with nearly 200,000 apps as of 2017, according to statista.com, a provider of market and consumer data. But the quality of these apps ranges widely, children's media researchers say, from terrible to great, with a whole lot of mediocre in between.

What makes an app great for kids might surprise you. Too many "educational" digital games function like a sad marriage of mimeographed worksheet and slot machine: shallow, rote drills of reading or math facts paired with encouraging "dings!," coins and smiley faces. In the ed tech space, this is known as chocolate-covered broccoli. Kids can learn from these things, but according to some experts, the knowledge won't stick or transfer well to other contexts.

"It's a torrential downpour flooding the market every single day," says Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a developmental psychologist at Temple University with decades of experience in the science of learning. "There's false advertising, just as there is in the 'educational' toy business."

A better model for learning apps, according to Hirsh-Pasek and others, may be less slot machine and more sandbox: a digital toy, not a digital game. Something more open-ended that gives kids a chance to be creative, while the concepts emerge organically from their explorations. Many have strong science behind them.

Gutierrez, after his son got his phone, went on to found a widely respected app company for kids, Tinybop. It has a set of award-winning and educator-approved "sandbox"-type apps that incorporate science concepts, such as the workings of the human body and, the latest, coral reefs. They're designed to tickle children's curiosity. Apps from Tammy Kwan's Cognitive ToyBox, spun off from a National Science Foundation-funded research grant, have topics like early reading and math, and are designed to teach high-level concepts. They're currently being tested in randomized controlled trials in real preschools.

Many popular children's apps marketed as educational, however, have little to no actual science behind them. For some parents, this might not even matter. Not all of them even agree with the experts on the definition of "beneficial."

"Somebody left us a one-star review and said, 'At the end of a long day and after homework is done, the last thing I want to do is to hear countless questions about the human body,' " says Gutierrez. "I wanted to email her and say, 'Lady, that's the point! We're trying to start conversations!' "

"App stores and review sites prioritize apps that have the highest potential for 'digital babysitting,' or good UI and engagement, with educational value being a secondary priority," says Kwan.

And while experts warn about overuse and solo use, especially for the youngest kids, many reviews of kids' games and apps in the App Store have comments such as "My two year old loves it ... not only him but his friends play this over and over"; "The only problem is [my toddler] won't stay off my computer now LOL"; and "Even at less than one month old my son stares and smiles at it."

Or how about this one: "I can't imagine [this app] holding the interest of a six year old for more than a couple of hours." A couple of hours being precisely double what the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends for daily screen time for young children.

Getting consumers hooked while they're tots is a marketer's dream. Yet many adults who are OK with ad-funded mobile games for themselves are far pricklier about ads in their kids' apps.

Indeed, while free apps served with advertising dominate the adult app world, parents are more apt to pay up front when it comes to their kids. Just 36 percent of the 50 highest-grossing kids' apps in 2015 were free to download, compared with 98 percent for adults, according to Dubit, a strategy, research and digital agency focused on kids' entertainment brands, which analyzed the kids' section of the Apple App Store for that year. Equally popular were apps that cost $1.99. For kids under 5, parents were willing to pay even more—up to $4.99 for apps with name recognition and advertised educational benefits, it found.

By the same token, fewer than half of games targeted at kids contained in-app purchases, compared with 98 percent of games overall, Dubit says.

The TV industry has tightly regulated the kinds of ads kids can see in its shows for decades. But the rules in the digital world are much murkier (minus one prohibition, which we'll get to in a minute). It's no surprise, then, that YouTube's been dinged by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood for the plethora of branded content on its Kids app, aimed at preschoolers. CCFC Executive Director Josh Golin points to the Lego Friends channel as an example of doing it wrong: It includes commercials for the toys, and "toy play" videos.

Having fought toy tie-ins and deceptive kids' advertising for decades on broadcast TV, the organization is now trying to fight the same battles online, where it's "significantly harder," according to Golin. One of the top genres on YouTube overall, as well as for kids, is "unboxing" videos of toys and the like, which Golin calls "basically infomercials."

There is a legal hurdle for marketers: the Children's Online Privacy Protection Rule, which gives parents control over what information websites can collect from their kids. Under the act, certain requirements are imposed on operators of websites or online services that knowingly collect personal information from children under age 13.

Developers like Gutierrez say those rules cripple marketers from user engagement, marketing and ad-targeting perspectives. It can even be hard to get your users to spread the word. "As a kids' app developer, you're not allowed to create a link out to a text or email," says Gutierrez. "In order to, for example, send something by email, you need a double opt-in from a parent, which is enough friction that it basically never happens."

Gutierrez's Tinybop has benefited from a lot of love from Apple, such as being featured in national ad campaigns and in the Apple Store. Toca Boca, another top kids' app brand, has grown through brand partnerships, including a clothing line at Target, though there are still no ads or Target branding in the apps themselves. Disney, PBS and Peppa Pig have traded on brand recognition elsewhere to build success in the app stores.

Both Tinybop and Kwan's Cognitive ToyBox, which has struggled to find an audience, are looking to a particular set of influencers—schools—to help them spread the word. School leaders and teachers, says Kwan, "do the research necessary to understand which apps have the most potential for educational value," and they're looking for tools to reinforce at home what they're teaching in the classroom. As for Tinybop, 10 percent of its 10 million downloads already goes to a school, but the company is looking to expand that by packaging its apps with more curricular materials and selling subscriptions.

Attracting kids to the "everything machine" may be as easy as giving candy to a baby. But competing with everybody else out there doing the same thing, it turns out, is a real education. 

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