App Store Angst

If you’re anything like most parents in the digital age you’ve relied on an iPad or iPhone to capture a child’s attention from time to time. Or even used these devices to entertain your children while navigating working from home while simultaneously teaching from home. This can be an overwhelming combination, and it’s understandable how an iPad can become the household go-to for self-entertainment amongst kids and teens.

With so many apps geared towards children’s learning, it’s hard not to want to incorporate this technology into a child’s education or entertainment. While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this; it is important to establish parental controls on all devices so that children don’t haphazardly get fed suggestive content through ads and Algorithms.

The Problem: Algorithms > Parental Control

One mother was extremely unsettled after discovering that the App Store recommendations reflected adult-like themes and situations instead of kid-friendly content similar to what was already downloaded. What was even more alarming was that these apps used cartoon-like characters as their icons making them appear appropriate at first glance all while incorporating storylines around finding love and ‘dating dads’.

Leaving our mother with the million-dollar question: Why is suggestive content being recommended on a children’s iPad?

The Culprit: The Family Share Plan.

Even though there were a plethora of children’s learning apps on that particular device—the App Store uses algorithms to recommend content based on information gathered from variables such as browsing history, subscriptions, ratings, previous purchases, and in-app purchases. The algorithms associated with family plans don’t know to differentiate between the ‘Kid’s iPad’ and ‘Mom’s iPhone’ it simply populates content based on what it learns about its group of users. Leaving our concerned mother in a predicament over her search history.

What you can do: Search Smarter

There are different parental control apps available through the App Store which can help monitor what kids have access to on their devices. For example, the iPhone’s parental controls can be found in the Screen Time section of the Settings app. After turning on Screen Time and setting up a passcode, you can limit screen time with specific apps, choose which websites can and can’t be visited, limit iTunes purchases, and more. It is important to note that while these functions can provide some control over what kids have access to, there is still the issue of the collection of raw data by the algorithms that ultimately ‘recommend’ or ‘suggest’ the content we see.

To truly disrupt an inappropriate algorithm one would have to first, understand what factors make up the data collected from your device.

Now that we know the variables (re: ‘the problem”) there are different steps you can take to create a shift in recommended content going forward:

First: Have ‘The Talk’ With Your Kids

While it’s up to you to decide whether you want to get into the nitty-gritty of the birds and bees conversation—it could be time to crack the surface and start talking to your kids about their relationships. Especially if you share a login and start to notice shifts in recommendations such as the one our mother from the example given above. Use this information as a tool to gauge your child’s interests and start asking questions and having more ‘teenage fueled’ conversations. 

Essentially: blame it on the tool and start talking.

Then: Reprogram Your Search

Delete the cache, delete the browsing history, delete it all. Data will still be captured by Apple but you can still do your part to keep the recommendations clean. We recommend taking a week ‘off’ and just completely recreating your online interests. For example, try searching for cooking and productivity apps–things more in line with what you’d want a child to naturally gravitate to instead of your usual internet search. Be cognizant of your keywords because those are a sure-fire way to get looped into another inappropriate recommendation haul. There is no guarantee that your algorithm will change overnight, but if you keep searching you’ll eventually start to see your home screen recommendations change. Then voila! You’ve tricked the algorithm. You should start to notice more child-friendly options and feel more at ease with your kids’ online activity.

Catherine Halprin

About Catherine Halprin

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