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4 Tips on choosing the right app from the ESRB

 esrb sealLast week, Dona Fraser the Vice President of ESRB Privacy Certified explained the new COPPA rules. This week, we continue our conversation with some tips for how parents can help their kids choose the right apps.  


KidsPrivacy: Will the new COPPA rules include apps like Instagram or Vine that currently restricts to users to over 13?

 Dona Fraser: Many websites and apps use a minimum age in their terms of service. COPPA compliance, however, is required for any online service that is deemed to be “directed to children,” or even in some cases where an app is directed to an audience that is a mix of kids and adults. There are a series of criteria that determine whether an online service is directed to children, but it essentially boils down to whether or not children are the primary target audience.

KP: For these apps outside of COPPA, what tools & tips does the ESRB have to help families decide if an app is appropriate for their child?

DF: Here are four things parents should keep in mind about managing their kids’ apps:

  1.  Check the rating. Parents can check an app’s age rating within the storefront it is purchased (it is usually listed on its detail page) but they can also look up information about apps by using the ESRB website or our free mobile app. ESRB recently expanded its rating system to add information that goes beyond content. Now apps can also be assigned notices, called Interactive Elements, that indicate if a game shares the user’s location with other users (“Shares Location”), shares user-provided personal information with third parties (“Shares Info”), or if users can interact with other users or may be exposed to user-generated content (“Users Interact”).
  2.  Check the privacy policy. Just like websites, apps that collect information from users must have a privacy policy that explains what information is collected, how it’s used, and with whom it’s shared. Review these policies to make sure you are comfortable with the information that is collected. It is also worth noting that the mobile industry is currently exploring what are called “short form” privacy notices, which are much more reader-friendly versions of privacy notices that tell parents exactly what they need to know without all the legalese.
  3.  Set restrictions. Many devices like smartphones and tablets allow parents to restrict access to certain apps and features. For instance, you can block the child from downloading apps that are above a certain age rating or ones that allow the user to make purchases from within the app. Explore your device’s settings and set these restrictions based on what you feel is appropriate for your child.
  4. Be hands-on. No tool can ever replace being involved. Check out what apps your child is downloading and using, and talk to them about what the apps do and why they find them fun or useful. Apps are tools and tools can be used for good and bad. Making sure your child is supervised and educated about what is appropriate is critical.

For more information about the ESRB and their tools for parents check out:

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ESRB helps Parents protect Kids’ Online Privacy

Back in 1998, Congress passed the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). COPPA was designed to protect children’s privacy by requiring commercial websites to ask for a parent’s permission before collecting information from their child. Now it is 15 years later and kids use of technology has exploded. This July 1st, COPPA received a badly needed update.

To find out more about how theses changes and how the new rules can help families, I spoke with Dona Fraser from the  Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB). Most parents know the ESRB from their ratings on video games and apps but they also have a Kids Privacy Certified Seal.

esrb sealThis week in PART 1 of my interview with Dona Fraser, Vice President of ESRB Privacy Certified, she explains the new rules and what parents can expect after July 1st. Next week in PART 2, she shares some tips on what to look for when choosing apps for their kids.


KidsPrivacy: Thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions. Let’s start with what do parents and kids need to know about the new COPPA rules?

 Dona Fraser: COPPA has a set of rules for when and how an online service, such as a website or a mobile app, must obtain consent from a parent if users under the age of thirteen will be providing what is called “personally identifiable information,” or PII. The COPPA Rule was originally created by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in 1999 but online services have evolved quite a bit since then. So, late last year, the FTC issued revisions to the Rule that are more consistent with today’s technologies. For example, the Rule previously defined PII as information like name, phone number, social security number and birth date. The new Rule expands that definition (in certain cases) to include photos or videos of children, geolocation data – if specific enough to pinpoint a street or specific address – or even a device ID, which is a unique identifying code that products like smartphones have. Parents and kids should understand that there are different types of information that an online service may ask for from a child, but there are detailed rules for how that information can be collected, and it is required that parents give their consent for the collection of that information.

KP: After after July 1st, what will change for parents? Will more apps require our permission and how will they verify it?

 DF: Apps that are directed to users under the age of thirteen are required to comply with COPPA. In practice that means they need to obtain what is called “verifiable parental consent,” which basically means the process of obtaining consent is stringent enough that a child could not realistically circumvent it by pretending to be the parent. The revised Rule allows new methods of giving this consent, such as via a scanned and signed consent form. To help companies meet this obligation, ESRB Privacy Certified offers its members access to the services of Veratad Technologies, which provides FTC-approved solutions for verifying people’s identity online via a seamless, virtually instant process. App users want to be able to download and use their app immediately. Forcing an app user to wait until a parent can sign, scan and mail a permission form isn’t optimal for the user experience. Veratad lets an app build in a quick, easy-to-use process that enables the parent to provide their consent, and for the app to be able to verify that it was actually the parent and not the child who gave that consent.

 KP: When parents see the ESRB Privacy Certification Kids Seal on an app, what does that mean? 

Mobile seal (1) DF: Our seals signify that websites and apps not only meet legal requirements such as COPPA but that they are also adhering to best practices related to responsibly collecting and using people’s personal information. They are an indicator that these services can be trusted, that they are respecting and protecting their users’ privacy, and that a credible third party is certifying that their practices are above board.

KP: Does that mean our kid’s information is not shared with advertisers?

DF: In certain cases there is information that can be shared with advertisers. COPPA exempts certain types of information from these rules if it is solely used for the operation of the app. For example, some apps will collect data from a smartphone about a user’s physical location so that they can serve relevant ads. If a user lives in Michigan it’s safe to assume they don’t need ads intended for people in Texas. So long as this location information isn’t specific enough (i.e., it identifies a zip code as opposed to a specific street address) and isn’t paired with information about who the user actually is, it can be shared with an ad network to target their ads. That being said, the new COPPA Rule does require that ad networks utilized by products that are directed to children must also be COPPA-compliant and seek consent from parents if they are collecting PII.


Next week, I continue my conversation with Dona Fraser where she shares some great tips on choosing apps for  kids.

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ESRB makes it easier to evaluate apps on the go

When packing for vacation, my kids throw their clothes and swimsuit in a bag then load up their devices with new apps for the long car ride. I check out all their apps by reading the description and looking at the age rating. Even after looking things over, I am often surprised by my kids playing an app and seeing a chat window pop up or questionable content.

This summer, I started looking up apps on the ESRB (Entertainment Software Review Board) website. Most parents know the ESRB from their ratings on video games. Almost all video games sold at a retail store display an ESRB rating. Now, the ESRB, with the CTIA-the Wireless Association, has expanded its rating system to include mobile apps.

What I like about the ESRB rating is the detailed information. The rating summary contains examples and quotes of why the game or app received a certain rating. Parents can also find information under “Other” if it allows online interactions such as sharing personal information, collecting location, or sharing pictures, texts, art etc. For me, these online interactions are just as important as content. With more information, parents can make a better decision if the app is appropriate for their kid.

When out and about, parents can use the ESRB’s free mobile app. This app allows parents to look up ratings for games on their phone. The app is available on iTunes or GooglePlay. When kids want to download a game while waiting for a flight or on a long trip, parents can quickly type in the name and check out the rating before kids download.

So far, six mobile companies, AT&T, Microsoft, Sprint, T-Mobile USA, U.S. Cellular and Verizon Wireless, will adopt the ESRB rating system in their storefronts. Parents will not see the ESRB ratings on iTunes or GooglePlay. These stores have their own separate rating system. The ESRB rates many of the same apps, so parents can still look them up on the ESRB website or with their mobile app.

The ESRB website has more than just ratings. Their family discussion guide contains some questions to ask kids about games or parents can use the questions as a guide for evaluating games. They also have information on how to set parental controls on video game consoles and other devices. With over 1 billion apps being downloaded a month, parents should definitely add this website to their list of favorite sites.