What Parents Need to know About Apps

App is simply short for mobile application, a type of application software designed to run on a mobile device, such as a smartphone or tablet. Apps frequently serve to provide users with similar services to those accessed on PCs. For example: to use a web browser for your bank account can be time consuming entering user names or account numbers and passwords so banks produce an app to make your online banking experience a little easier with the intention to keep you using the app on a frequent basis.

The number of mobile phone users across the world is expected to pass the five billion mark by 2019 (Statista). In Australia, 89% of the population use a smart phone, the most popular apps being Facebook and YouTube with 15 million followers each. The average person has 60-90 apps installed on their phone, using around 30 of them each month and launching 9 per day. The number of new Android apps released per day through Google Play Store from 2016 to 2018 averaged 6,140. Smartphone users spend on average 2 hours and 15 minutes a day using apps – the equivalent of one month a year and we wonder where our time goes!. (Data from App Annie)

For an app to make your user experience a little easier it needs to collect some information about you and this should be the first area of caution as some are a little greedy in collecting information. An app will ask your permission to access data from your phone. These permissions may range from (but not limited to):

  • Precise location
  • Access to your contacts
  • Send SMS messages
  • Permission to directly call phone numbers
  • Permission to reroute outgoing calls
  • Access to camera
  • Record audio via microphone
  • Read/write contents of USB storage
  • Read phone status and identity

Whilst some apps may require this information to carry out some of its functions, google maps may need your current location to reroute your journey, but would not need permission to reroute calls.

Most apps collect data for advertising purposes, the more they know about you the more they can target advertising to meet your wants and desires. Among the top apps it found that explicitly use data for advertising were a zip tool, weather-forecast apps, a flight tracker and news reader Flipboard. Facebook is a prime example of selling personal details when they allowed an app developed by Cambridge Analytica to compile personal information relating to 87 million Facebook users. This information was reportedly then used in targeted social media campaigns directed at voters during the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign.

These app permissions can be refused if you feel they are unnecessary, although this may impact on the apps performance. Keep in mind that apps don’t have to sit on your phone to collect data about you. If you use Facebook and have not checked your privacy permissions then your friends apps can collect data about you via their link.  The apps your children use probably know more about your child’s online activity than you do.

The problem with regards to collecting personal information on children for the purpose of targeted advertising is children are vulnerable to its influence. Apps read our posts,they get clues from messages as to what our interests are, which they use to select suitable adverting, which may not always be in the best interests of the user.  Keep in mind the more permissions you allow, the more information your apps have access too.

It is very difficult for parents to know which apps are safe for children to use and which apps to avoid as the app market changes so quickly, new apps are constantly being released or updated on a daily basis. The most important point to remember when allowing your child to use an app is that all apps have the potential to be harmful to your child if they left unsupervised whilst using it. The internet has no main governing body and parents are advised to take responsibility for their child’s use of the internet. If your child lies about their age when creating a Facebook account it is your responsibility as a parent to prevent this not theirs.

Protecting children on the internet is difficult and most of the current laws in use have been created in the U.S. and have been adopted across the world. These laws are aimed businesses that produce products for children. COPPA (The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act) is a United States law that makes it illegal for commercial  websites, plugins or ad networks to collect identifying information about children under 13 without parental consent.

Note this law states under 13 which is the joining age for most social media apps. Once at 13 or even worse if they have joined illegally, social media apps can collect data on that person which leaves many children vulnerable to being exploited by advertising.

The law demands that information-collecting companies: (Kelly Warner law)

  1. Maintain stringent security measures to keep online personal data safe;
  2. Get verifiable parental consent before digitally collecting personal information from children under 13;
  3. Publish/post conspicuous, easy-to-understand privacy policies;
  4. Implement a system which notifies parents and guardians of policy and procedure changes;
  5. Provide a way for parents/guardians to opt-out or delete their child’s information at any time.

In Australia COPPA does apply if you wish to trade in the U.S. market and have a product aimed at children. At the time of writing, current Australian law provides individuals with almost no privacy ‘rights’ in the online environment and even the few rights they allegedly have are not protected adequately and are difficult to have enforced.(Taken from Australian Privacy Law)

Australian privacy laws are still largely based of the 1988 Act and have been created in generic terms. There have been amendments to the Act and in 2018 new regulations were brought in giving clearer guidelines on how businesses collect and store information, and new regulations for electronically sharing intimate images’ without consent, but we are still largely reliant on COPPA for guidelines on protecting children from exploitation through businesses online.

So if you wish for your child to have a social media account keep in mind that sites may state a joining age of 13 years old, but it is your responsibility to ensure that the child is telling the truth when they sign up, and your responsibility to monitor their use of that app.

Parental controls will help but nothing is 100% and you should always keep this in mind when setting digital rules (as we have suggested on this site). Some will work well at blocking ‘adult’ or sexual content but parental controls within social media have difficulty blocking other types of harmful content that may promote self-harm, eating disorders, violence, drugs, gambling, racism and terrorism.

We all have rights, but when to comes to the internet its about taking responsibility and you should take great care over the information you and your children share online.


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