Protecting children and young adults from inappropriate content is an important aspect of app design. As more and more kids have access to digital devices and an internet connection, the need to protect them becomes increasingly pressing. Age ratings are one of the most effective ways of achieving this.
In this article, we examine the various ways the main app stores manage app ratings, discuss why they are important and look at how you know whether your app is age-appropriate.
Context – what is the concern?
Before we begin that process, it’s important to understand why age ratings were adopted and the context in which they’re applied. First and foremost, children growing up in today’s society have more access to digital devices than ever before.
OFCOM research shows that 99% of all children went online in 2021 and 83% of secondary-age children always have access to a digital device. 97% of 12-15 year-olds have their own mobile phone and a majority of under-13s have at least one social media profile. These usage statistics demonstrate that children and young adults are more exposed to internet content than any preceding generation.
At the same time, parents are increasingly concerned about the content their children see on the internet. The same OFCOM report revealed that seven in ten parents were worried about the content their children consume. There is also a lack of information and education available. Just four in ten parents of 3-17 year-olds knew the minimum age requirement for using most social media sites is 13.
What do age ratings protect against?
The age rating system is not new. Age ratings have been applied to several types of media, most notably films, for decades. However, age ratings for apps is still in its infancy. That means there’s relatively little industry standardisation and users are less aware of how the rating systems work.
In many ways, the app rating system protects children against the same types of content as those rating systems used by the film industry. This includes content that features nudity, profanity, violence and drug use. However, unlike films, apps also have to account for the interactive nature of digital technology. Often, apps do not just expose children to content. They also expose them to other users. This is incredibly difficult to manage. However, the government has attempted to protect younger users by introducing social media legislation. We’ll touch on this later in the article.
How are apps age-rated?
Organisations age rate apps in distinct ways. This means that an app’s age rating can vary across operating systems. To illustrate that point we’re going to look at the two most popular app stores and examine how they rate apps listed on their platform.
First up is Google’s Play Store, which allows you to install apps on Android operating systems. In the UK, Google utilises a third-party rating system from the Pan European Game Information (PEGI) organisation. It breaks apps into five different age categories, ranging from PEGI 3 to PEGI 18, and also includes a Parental Guidance Recommended category for apps that offer a broad range of content that changes regularly and doesn’t fit into one age bracket.
The lowest age bracket (PEGI 3) permits comical cartoon violence as long as children cannot associate the characters on-screen with real-life characters. It prohibits all bad language. At the other end of the scale, PEGI 18 is for content that portrays gross violence and glamorises illegal drug use. The brackets in between act as stepping stones, with each step up the classification scale permitting slightly more adult content. There is more information about the rating system on the PEGI website.
Developers must fill in a questionnaire to receive an age rating on the Play Store. If you do not complete the questionnaire or you receive an inadequate age rating because you failed to fill in the questionnaire accurately, Google can remove your app from the Play Store.
While the PEGI system is relatively comprehensive, it does not fully assess the threat posed by an app’s interactive features. Typically, interactive apps like Facebook receive a Parental Guidance Required rating. Outside of Europe, the Play Store defaults to the International Age Rating Coalition (IARC) system, unless there is a relevant rating agency established in that region.
Apple App Store
The Apple App Store operates its own age rating system. In the past, this was criticised, as the App Store ratings were regularly lower than age ratings for the same apps on other platforms. However, Apple has done a considerable amount of work to update its rating policy and more apps are now receiving ratings comparable to those in other stores.
The Apple App Store also calculates its age ratings by asking developers to answer a questionnaire. It has four age categories, 4+, 9+, 12+ and 17+. The 4+ category has three sub-categories:
- Made for Ages 5 and Under
- Made for Ages 6 to 8
- Made for Ages 9 to 11
No objectionable content is permitted in the 4+ category. In the 9+ category, content “may contain mild or infrequent occurrences of cartoon, fantasy or realistic violence, and mild or infrequent mature, suggestive, or horror-themed content which may not be suitable for children under the age of 9.” (Apple)
For the 12+ rating, apps “may also contain infrequent mild language; frequent or intense cartoon, fantasy or realistic violence; mild or infrequent mature or suggestive themes; and simulated gambling which may not be suitable for children under the age of 12.”
Finally, the 17+ rating dictates that apps “may contain frequent and intense offensive language; frequent and intense cartoon, fantasy or realistic violence; and frequent and intense mature, horror and suggestive themes; plus sexual content, nudity, alcohol, tobacco and drugs which may not be suitable for children under the age of 17.
Apple also operates a Kids Category on the App Store. For an app to be eligible for this category, it:
- Requires a parental gate for any links out of the app or purchasing opportunities.
- Cannot communicate personal or device information to third parties.
- Must only include adverts that have been human-reviewed for age appropriateness.
For a full account of Kids Category conditions, check out the App Store Review Guideline 1.3.
Other age-rating factors to consider
There are several other factors to consider when trying to establish what age rating your app will receive. First, the process will vary from region to region. While this guide is written from the perspective of UK users, rating systems and legislation will differ in other jurisdictions.
Second, national legislation often impacts who an app can be aimed at. For instance, the UK government’s Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) prevents social media companies from collecting and storing the personal information of under-13s without a parent’s permission. For this reason, most social media apps should receive an age rating of at least 13+.
If you want to establish how age-appropriate your app is, the best thing to do is to head to the PEGI and Apple App Store websites and ensure the app meets the relevant guidelines. While the rating process isn’t completely transparent (the ICO recently wrote to Google and Apple requesting more information on how they age-rate apps), there is enough information to help you make an informed assessment.
Alternatively, you can get in touch with our app experts at The Distance. We have plenty of experience creating apps for specific audiences and can help you ensure your app is designed to reach your target users.