Kids’ Apps Are Surging in Popularity During Quarantine, but Many Have Rocky Records on Privacy

Platforms are catering to these young users while grappling with a changing landscape

Illustration of three kids on electronic devices with someone bigger hugging them
A new generation of stay-at-home kids is depending on major tech platforms for a safe, secure and healthy experience online. molotovcoketail/Getty Images
Headshot of Scott Nover

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These days, Chris Mohney, editor of food website Zagat Stories, knows that his kids are spending more time in front of a screen than usual, watching videos on YouTube Kids and playing games. While he and his wife, a partner at a law firm, are both working from their home in Westchester County, N.Y., their jobs have been busier than ever. 

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, many parents are juggling their own work commitments with their children’s uncertain schedules. Blind, an anonymous professional network, found more than half of surveyed professionals are working from home with a child.

“Their screen time is definitely up since they’ve been staying home,” said Mohney, who has an 11-year-old son and an 8-year-old daughter.

Since schools began shutting down, the popularity of children’s apps like YouTube Kids and Facebook’s Messenger Kids has seen a significant bump. But as kids flock to new apps, the companies behind them are still grappling with the changing landscape of privacy laws and dynamic shifts in customer behavior.

App analytics firm Sensor Tower reported that worldwide downloads of Messenger Kids skyrocketed from about 460,000 in February to 3.1 million in March, an increase of 574%. YouTube Kids got an 11% boost, and the new app Spotify Kids, which debuted in the United States the last week of March, improved by 32% globally. (For comparison, pandemic sensation Zoom shot up 1,098% during that time, while the regular Spotify, Messenger and YouTube apps grew 11%, 10% and 2%, respectively.)

As more families flock to children’s apps, Rita Heimes, general counsel at the International Association of Privacy Professionals, said it’s important for parents to understand how the laws work.

“They’re mostly consent-based laws, so they don’t prohibit the collection of personal data at all. They simply require that it be done with the consent of an adult,” Heimes said. “So that doesn’t mean that children are going to remain invisible online.” Advocacy groups like the Electronic Privacy Information Center have called for the federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (Coppa), passed in 1998, to be strengthened.

When parents customize the app experiences to their children by providing data—a name, birth date, an avatar or image of the child—they’re often consensually offering up more information than they need to, Heimes noted. On the state level, there are some additional protections: Under California’s Consumer Privacy Act, state residents—including children—can access data collected about them and have it deleted. 

“The major issue that each of these app companies faces is [if] they need all of that data about any of their users in order for the app to function,” she added.  

In recent years, tech platforms have been under fire for a slew of children’s privacy violations. In September, Google was fined a record-breaking $170 million in a settlement with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and the New York State Attorney General for violating Coppa. Gen Z-focused app TikTok was ordered to pay $5.7 million last February for Coppa violations when it was still called Musical.ly.

Additionally, YouTube has faced its share of criticism for serving children violent and inappropriate content in recent years, but said its stand-alone YouTube Kids app has “made some changes in the corpus over the last year to make it safer, but also to train the app to serve more educational and enriching content.” For instance, YouTube changed data collection and monetization policies around kid-targeted videos in January.

And while the FTC hasn’t found Facebook in violation, a design flaw briefly allowed thousands of children to interact with unauthorized users last summer. Sens. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., have written to Facebook with concerns over children’s privacy on the app, while they and two other senators also urged the FTC last year to open an investigation into Amazon over data collection policies with the Echo Dot Kids. 

With screen time up, a new generation of stay-at-home kids is depending on major tech platforms for a safe, secure and healthy experience online. With their childhoods on pause, it’s the least of what they deserve.

This story first appeared in the April 13, 2020, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@ScottNover scott.nover@adweek.com Scott Nover is a platforms reporter at Adweek, covering social media companies and their influence.
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