Parent's Checklist: 6 Things to Look for Before Downloading Apps for Kids

Kids' apps are after your child's personal data. Here's what you can do to protect your little one's privacy.

Attila Tomaschek
Attila is a Staff Writer for CNET, covering software, apps and services with a focus on virtual private networks. He is an advocate for digital privacy and has been quoted in online publications like Computer Weekly, The Guardian, BBC News, HuffPost, Wired and TechRepublic. When not tapping away on his laptop, Attila enjoys spending time with his family, reading and collecting guitars.
Expertise Attila has nearly a decade's worth of experience with VPNs and has been covering them for CNET since 2021. As CNET's VPN expert, Attila rigorously tests VPNs and offers readers advice on how they can use the technology to protect their privacy online.
Attila Tomaschek
5 min read
PBS kids app displayed on a tablet.

Protect your kid's privacy by taking the time to understand how apps handle user data before you download them.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Adults are likely aware of the risks associated with apps that harvest and sell your data, but kids aren't. Raising a kid in the digital age can be incredibly nerve-wracking, and as a parent it's up to you to keep your children safe online. But protecting your child's privacy can seem like an impossible task when you realize kids' apps also have an unhealthy appetite for their data.

TheToyZone, a UK-based toy review site, conducted a study in January that examined popular kids' apps and determined which were the most privacy-invasive. The group's research found that money management apps (like Greenlight Kids & Teen Banking, Till and RoosterMoney) are the most data-hungry and collect an average of 10 types of data per app. Greenlight was found to be the most invasive app by collecting 22 types of data.

Despite being designed for a younger audience, kids' apps often collect sensitive data like device location, contact info, health info, browsing history, search history, financial info and contacts. That data is extremely valuable to advertisers and even if its anonymized, it can be used to create a detailed and specific profile of your child. This can be especially dangerous if it ends up in the wrong hands, like in the event of a breach. Country-specific laws like the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act in the US may put restrictions on how companies can advertise to children online, but with parental consent, a kids' app is free to collect user data. 

It's important to understand that it's not just your children's data at stake here, but yours as well. This is why it's crucial to know what apps your kids want to use before you download them and agree to any permissions or terms. Here are six things you should do before downloading an app for your kid to protect everyone's privacy.

Check what permissions the app asks for

Apps love to ask for permissions because they want to collect as much data as possible, especially if they rely heavily on advertising revenue. Some permissions are necessary for the normal functioning of an app; the Pokémon Go app will need access to location data to function properly, for instance. However, there's no reason in hell that a gaming app like Snake vs. Block, an old-school arcade-style game where you guide a snake through numbered blocks, needs to know your kid's location.

To check what permissions an app requests on Android, simply search for the app in the Google Play Store and tap About this app and then App permissions. Look out for potentially invasive permissions like access to the device's camera, microphone, contacts, location and browsing history. If any permissions look overly invasive and unnecessary for the normal functioning of the app, then you may want to find an alternative. However, if you do end up downloading the app, you can always disable any non-essential permissions in settings.

Unfortunately, you won't be able to see app permissions in Apple's App Store before downloading any iOS apps unless the developer lists them in its privacy policy. After you download an iOS app, you can check the permissions by tapping Settings and scrolling down to the app. From there, you can customize and disable what the app can access on your child's device.

Research the app and its developer

Here are five important questions to consider when researching an app you're thinking of downloading for your kid: 

1. What is the app's rating in the App Store or Google Play Store?

2. What do user reviews say?

3. How many people have downloaded it?

4. Does the company behind the app have a history of shady data practices or known data breaches?

5. Does the app have a history of delivering content that may not be suitable for children?

Most of this information can be found in the app's description, but you can go a step further and run a Google search. Look up the app and the developer along with terms like "data breach," "lawsuit" or "privacy violations" and see what comes up. Read in-depth kids' app reviews from trusted sources online like Common Sense Media

Just a few minutes of research can give you a lot of insight into whether a particular app will take your children's privacy seriously. If you come across any red flags during your research, think twice before downloading the app in question.

Check Apple's Privacy Nutrition Labels or the Google Play Data safety section

Apple started adding "nutrition labels" to app descriptions in the App Store with the release of iOS 14.3 in 2020. The app nutrition label gives you a rundown of what types of data each app collects. Google launched its own version of the feature in April. Google's "Data safety" section shows what types of data an app collects, how the data is used, whether the collection is optional, as well as whether it's shared with third parties.

If you see any kids' app collecting and/or sharing data that you're not comfortable with, then it's better to look for a different app. 

Read the app's privacy policy and terms of service

An app's terms of service (ToS) will detail what you're agreeing to when you download the app and your kid uses it. The app's privacy policy explains what steps the app and developer take to protect user privacy, including what information is collected, how it's secured, and who it's shared with.

Sure, no parent has the time to sit down and read a ToS or privacy policy when so many of them are absurdly worded and novella-like in length. A simple trick to save you from having to read the whole thing is to do a search for key terms like "third party," "share," "collect," "data," and "location" in each document (Control+F on Windows, Command+F on MacOS.)

If the terms of service don't meet your expectations, don't download the app.

Understand what privacy settings and parental controls the app offers

Kids' apps typically have robust privacy settings and parental controls, but if the app's offerings are ineffective or lacking the levels of privacy and control you're comfortable with, you shouldn't download it.

How you decide to assess privacy settings and parental controls will depend on your child's age and whether the app is educational in nature, a game or a social platform. Generally, a few settings and controls you'll want to look for include the ability to:

  • Pre-approve friend requests
  • Restrict who can contact your child through the app
  • Remotely track and limit your child's usage of the app
  • Filter content to age-appropriate levels

Have a conversation with your kid about the importance of online privacy

As soon as your kid starts using connected devices and going online, it's time to start talking to them about the importance of data privacy online. Have an open, honest conversation in terms that will resonate with your child. Help them understand that online activities can have real-world consequences and that keeping private information private is critical. It can be like the digital equivalent of the age-old "never talk to strangers" conversation. 

However you choose to approach it, it's important to make sure you and your child are on the same page when it comes to acceptable online behavior and being careful about what you share with others online and with the apps you interact with.

For more information, check out what you need to know about getting a debit card for your kid or teen and four reasons not to get your kid an Occulus Quest 2