In recent months, both Apple and Google faced criticism over the questionable content of certain apps in their online app stores, leading parents to wonder what exactly their children have access to when using popular smartphones.
In March, Apple yanked a controversial “gay cure” app for the iPhone after an online petition calling for the app’s removal received 146,000 signatures in 24 hours. According to Exodus International, the religious group that created the application, Exodus is the largest Christian referral and information network dealing with homosexual issues, defining its mission as promoting "freedom from homosexuality through the power of Jesus Christ."
The group’s “freedom from homosexuality” app leads the user back to a website that focuses on abstaining from gay lifestyles, something Exodus International views as fundamental to upholding the values of Christianity.
In late April, Google found itself in the middle of a similar controversy when a game for its Android operating system for phones simulating dog fighting appeared in its on-line shop, Android Market. Dubbed “Dog Wars,” the app immediately drew criticism from dog lovers.
Even Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick — no stranger to dog fighting himself — spoke out against the virtual game.
“I’ve come to learn the hard way that dog fighting is a dead-end street,” Vick said. “Now, I am on the right side of this issue, and I think it’s important to send the smart message to kids, and not glorify this form of animal cruelty, even in an Android app.”
Vick partnered with The Human Society of the United States (HSUS), which called for the app’s removal from the Android Market.
Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the HSUS, said that “because ‘Dog Wars’ actually instructs players on how to condition a dog using methods that are standard in organized dog fighting, this game may be a virtual training ground for would-be dogfighters. Its timing and message are all wrong.”
As of this writing, the app is still available for download from Android Market, a reminder that parents shouldn’t count on phone companies and software designers to protect their kids from inappropriate content.
“Putting a smartphone in a child’s hands is a big responsibility,” Verizon Wireless spokesperson Brenda Raney said. “Parents need to treat it like a small computer.”
There are parental controls on most phones, Raney said, but parents should “understand the capabilities of the phones.”
“Parents need to know the maturity level of their kid and buy the appropriate phone,” she said.
If your child has access to a smartphone (or even an app-capable MP3 player such as the iPod Touch) there are steps to take to limit how far they may explore. Apple offers extensive parental controls for the iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad. Parents may restrict access to everything from app installation to use of the built-in camera. Web browsing can also be controlled. You can find specific instructions for enabling parental controls here.
So how do controversial apps make their way into the app stores in the first place? Apple approves every app for sale in its App Store through a notoriously mysterious process intended to be a check on quality. Every app also receives an age rating to help parents choose age-appropriate apps for their kids. Finally, Apple makes it impossible to download or install apps from anywhere except the App Store.
That is a far cry from Google’s Android Market that has no guidelines or rules for publishing Android apps aside from a few technical specifications. When it comes to content anything goes. Anyone can publish an app in the Market or anywhere else, for that matter. Android users aren’t restricted to Google’s Market and may download apps from any website.
As smartphones become smarter and kids more and more tech savvy, parents are facing an increasingly difficult challenge: how to keep their kids away from content that would have been far out of reach 20 years ago. Meanwhile, two of the largest developers of smartphone operating systems, Apple and Google, are struggling to keep up with the surge of apps making their way into app stores.