Keeping kids safe on mobile apps

Young kids, even toddlers, using mobile phone and tablet apps is considered by many to be fairly normal in today’s society.

Developing apps for kids is becoming big business, and is definitely (if you’ll pardon the pun) a growth industry.

Apps are often tied in with popular TV shows and characters, and pushed strongly on popular channels such as CBeebies and CBBC.

However, it’s important to know how to keep your kids safe when they’re using these apps so they don’t stray off into undesirable places, or end up costing you money.

1. Beware of free

Free apps may seem appealing because there’s nothing to pay to install them.

Some free apps might be “light” versions of other apps which you can buy.

It’s worth bearing in mind that most app developers aren’t dong it altruistically, and those who offer free apps have usually built in ways to make money.

This may be via banner or video advertising either during gameplay, or in between levels, or alternatively via ‘in-app’ purchases.


I’ve noticed the advertising placed in games is often inappropriate to very young audiences.

The game itself may be perfectly fine for kids to play, but the ads make me wary of letting kids loose.

Not only can an inadvertent tap lead to websites or an app store being opened, with the possibility of unsavoury content, app installation or purchases, but the ads themselves are often more adult in nature.

Popular ads at present include gambling games, fairly violent/non-PG game ads, and even dating/relationship ads. Some are dressed up to look like mini-games, which could confuse/trick younger kids into interacting with them.

Ads do still appear on games you pay for up-front, but they’re not as prevalent (and some software companies categorically don’t use them at all) mainly because the developer has made money on a sale.

In-app purchases

This is where additional gameplay, features, levels and such like can be purchased from within the game itself. It’s a great way for developers to get more cash from dedicated game players who want to advance faster or gain access to cool features.

The trouble is, they can often be activated far too easily, and costs can vary from less than a pound/dollar, to tens if not hundreds of pounds/dollars.

Again, free apps are more prone to this kind of enticement, but they’re common in many apps.

It can be hard to educate younger children not to attempt to buy more stuff. They don’t necessarily understand real money, or that it costs something.

For protection, do not enable any ‘1-click’ or equivalent fast purchasing options on your phone or tablet. It may be convenient, but you don’t want your credit card or bank account charged by simply tapping.

Where possible, require some kind of password or card authentication whenever a transaction is requested.

2. Apps are not babysitters

Though many see apps as a techie childminder, this isn’t how they should be used.

Young children in particular should be supervised when using apps. That way, any problems can be sorted out straight away.

Just as it’s not a great idea to let your kids watch unfiltered TV for hours at a time, it’s not good for them to be left with unrestricted access to mobile apps.

By all means build in tablet time as part of a healthy balance of activities, but don’t use it as an excuse to switch off parentally.

3. Parental locks are not childproof

Putting various locks on a phone or tablet can lull parents into a false sense of security.

Many kids are now smart enough to discover how to break or undo basic locks.

Other filters do have errors in them which can cause them to crash and leave the mobile device unlocked.

Kids may still be able to install new software (a browser for example) to allow them to circumvent whatever security you’ve put in place.

Kids starting out on a ‘safe’ website can easily follow links to sites you’d rather they didn’t visit. For example, the CBeebies website is great, but still has links to other BBC sites which you might not want them to see.

By all means use parental controls but as a top-up measure.

4. Education is key

Following on from above, it’s education that’s key to a child’s sensible use of technology.

Instead of running around fighting fires on individual social media platforms, apps and websites, educate your kids holistically to understand both the benefits and potential dangers of being online.

Do not rely on their teachers to do this for you. Education on this, as so many other things, begins at home.

Let them know you are there for them to talk if they see or do things online they’re not comfortable with.

Make sure they understand about keeping their personal information safe and not doing anything online which they wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) do in a public place.

There are websites which can help with advice if this is something you are unsure of. However, it’s more important that you know about general Internet safety – which remains the same – rather than worrying about individual apps and sites.

5. Teens need safety too

It can be hard to keep check on what your teens are doing with their mobile devices. They probably have their own device and don’t want you going anywhere near it.

I’d advise against trying to install any kind of tracking software on phones or tablets – even though it exists – as this shouts of mistrust, and as mentioned above can probably be circumvented anyway.

Continue to build on messages you gave them when they were younger.

Resist buying into the scaremongering stories about ‘all teens’ doing X, Y or Z on this, that or the other service.

Although this world may seem alien to you, having not grown up with the Internet and mobile devices as teens, you have to remember it’s completely normal to them.

Embrace their world. Don’t judge them. Be there for them.