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Apps push parents’ buttons

Latest digital dilemma: deciding what’s appropriate

Djamila Fitzgerald researched newapps for sons Tristan (left), 7, and Ronan, 9. Djamila Fitzgerald researched newapps for sons Tristan (left), 7, and Ronan, 9. (Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)
By Beth Teitell
Globe Staff / January 20, 2011

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When Lisa Chinatti of Westford sits down to dinner with her daughters, she’s eager to hear about what happened at school that day. But her first-grader often prefers a different topic: which new apps her friends are playing with on their parents’ smartphones or iPads, and which ones she wants her own parents to buy for her.

“Mommy needs to learn about them first,’’ Chinatti responds.

But Mommy doesn’t always have time to immediately educate herself about every Hannah Montana or Star Wars app — she works, as a real estate agent, and there are dishes and laundry and snow pants to deal with — and that sometimes leaves Chinatti’s 7-year-old going to bed unhappy. “You promised we’d talk about it!’’ she wails as she’s being tucked in.

Not that they need one, but parents and children have a new battleground: the app.

With the number of children’s applications for mobile devices multiplying faster than Silly Bandz on a grade schooler’s wrist, parents are reporting bedtime app-related meltdowns, disagreements over what constitutes an appropriate game, and endless requests to borrow mom’s or dad’s phone or iPad.

And it’s only likely to get worse. There are already more than 300,000 apps, according to the International Data Corp., a Framingham-based research firm. The number of downloads is expected to hit 76.9 billion worldwide in 2014, up from 10.9 billion last year. The group predicts that worldwide revenues for mobile apps will exceed $35 billion in 2014.

Exact figures on apps for children are hard to come by, but specialists expect the children’s market to grow with the rest of the field — not only for Apple’s products but for Google’s Android devices as well.

There are educational apps that allow a child to learn basic facts about math or the solar system. There are game apps, such as the popular Angry Birds, which involves catapulting birds at fortresses made by evil pigs, and Cut the Rope, a puzzle game featuring a cute monster that wants candy. There are apps that teach children the alphabet or let them draw. There are apps that make bodily sounds.

And the apps never stop coming. Warren Buckleitner, editor of the Children’s Technology Review, recently counted almost 13,000 apps for children in Apple’s iTunes store. Buckleitner says he gets 10 new apps to review daily, compared with three a day a year ago. “In 2007 that number was zero,’’ he noted. “The App Store didn’t exist.’’

As apps proliferate, so do reviews — yet it can be overwhelming for parents to determine which are suitable for their children. Jamie Pearson, copublisher of bestkidsapps.com, equates trying to preview the new apps appearing daily with “drinking out of a fire hose.’’ She regularly hears from parents who are worried that their children know more about apps than they do.

“There’s just too much choice and not enough curation in the App Store,’’ she said. “Most parents want to preapprove the media their young kids consume. That’s doable with movies and television shows, but with apps it’s much harder.’’

Djamila Fitzgerald of Cambridge, 45, is one of the overwhelmed. She’s strict about which movies her children, ages 7 and 9, watch, and wants to be equally careful about apps. But says she finds herself making up rules as she goes along. “OK, you can use the app where the soccer ball knocks someone’s head off, but not the games with guns.’’

There’s also price to consider. “Each app doesn’t cost that much,’’ she said, “but I’ve got two kids, and it adds up.’’

The price may become even more of a factor. Most children’s apps for the iPhone or iPod Touch cost less than $2, but those for the iPad can easily often cost $5 and up, Buckleitner said.

He also offered a cautionary note on “in-app sales,’’ a function that allows a user to easily make game-related purchases straight from within the app itself.

“When it’s combined with a little kid who doesn’t understand how the App Store works, parents might notice some unexpected charges on their iTunes account,’’ Buckleitner said. He recommends that parents consider turning off the ability to make in-app purchases.

There is also marketing to contend with.

“Clearly you are marketing to the gatekeeper — the owner of the iPad,’’ said Rachel Graham, director of online marketing and digital publishing for National Geographic Books. In December, National Geographic Kids released a $5.99 app for the iPad called “Ultimate Dinopedia: The Most Complete Dinosaur Reference Ever.’’

With the parents, she explained, the publisher makes “the broccoli argument’’ — the app is good for your child. “Whereas with the kids, it’s more like, hey, dinosaurs are going to talk to you, and they are going to move, and you’re going to see gorgeous pictures of what these creatures look like and hear how these crazy names are pronounced.’’

As the iPhone and iPad presence grows, businesses say they feel the need to have an app for image reasons, if no other. Abbie Davies, president and owner of My First Yoga, which brings yoga into schools and venues such as the Boston Children’s Museum, introduced an iPhone app in May. It’s been “great for business,’’ she said, “not necessarily because we are making tons of money off it, but it’s a great way for the kids who we work with to think very differently about our company. They feel more connected to us.’’

But is feeling connected to an app a good thing? For young children, Tovah Klein, director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development, says no.

“I always say to parents I don’t see a real value in this stuff so you should avoid it. . . .,’’ she said. “The line parents are being sold over and over is, ‘This is educational.’ But basically the child is sitting there and pushing buttons and getting a response. It’s a very passive activity.’’

She noted a change the apps represent in the parent-child relationship. “When I was growing up my dad had this amazing record collection. I don’t remember him saying, ‘Don’t touch my record player.’ We just didn’t. With technology [now], there’s no line between what’s for Mommy or Daddy and what’s for the child. People say, ‘That’s Mommy’s iPhone,’ but you let her play with it 100 other times.’’

Many parents hand over their iPads or iPhones in self defense, as little takes the whine out of a long car ride or boring shopping trip like Angry Birds.

Fitzgerald, the Cambridge mother, points to another potential positive in children’s love of apps: It gives a parent leverage.

“I try and threaten to take away the TV and they’re like, ‘OK,’ and they don’t really care about movies, either. Their drug of choice would be playing apps on their [iPod] Touch.’’

Beth Teitell can be reached at bteitell@globe.com.

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