Finding a good app for your child can be overwhelming. There are countless pages, reviews, claims and ratings. What do ratings actually mean?
Here are three things parents should know:
App age ratings are determined by the developer
First off, you should know that ratings don’t actually mean anything official. There is no United States government approved app rating process. Any developer can rate their own app. This means they can put whatever age rating or label they want. Unlike the U.S. Federal Department of Agriculture (FDA) that rates labels on foods (i.e. organic, lite) with a strict vetting process, there is not official process for app labels.
There is no independent app review board
The closest organization to any kind of official rating for digital media is the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB). Ratings by the ESRB are assigned based on information game publishers provide and by raters viewing videos. Just like with app developers, it’s the game companies providing the information to the reviewers. While the ESRB ratings are helpful, parents should still do their own homework with vetting games. For apps, there is no equivalent of the ESRB, so there is even less of an evaluation and labeling process.
There is no standard definition of an educational app
As with age ratings, any developer can slap a label of “educational” on their app. To say what truly “works” from a research standpoint requires a great deal of time and expertise. The gold standard of much research is a randomized control trial, comparing multiple groups over a long period of time. But that’s a lot of time and cost for a company trying to make money, so it’s not likely to have been done. Treat any label of “educational” with skepticism.
There has been proposed legislation in the United States to create an app review board, but even if that passes parents will be in the same situation as with movies or games—they can’t rely fully on the review system.