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National group with Utah ties aims to fix app-rating system in effort to protect children

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SALT LAKE CITY — A national group with Utah ties is looking to create a rating system for apps, similar to ones found on movies or video games, in the hopes of protecting children from potentially dangerous online content.

#FixAppRatings, a group that evolved from Protect Young Eyes, seeks to change the app-ratings system in an effort to create "safer digital places for kids," similar to what the self-regulatory organization Electronic Services Rating Board did in the 1990s for video games.

Rep. Susan Pulsipher, R-South Jordan, sponsored House Resolution 9 in the 2020 legislative session with Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross. H.J.R. 9 is a joint resolution calling for an application ratings board for internet-ready devices. When asked why she decided to sponsor this resolution, Pulsipher said, "I have some constituents who have been concerned about the apps ... so they are the ones who came to me with the resolution. I’m a parent and I also have grandchildren and am concerned on what our young people are exposed to on certain apps."

Chris McKenna, the founder of Protect Young Eyes, connected with Utah child advocate Melissa McKay to discuss ways to help parents make safe decisions on technology for their children.

"She had this idea that if the app stores where apps are being used were more transparent like what we see through the ESRB for video games … it will make it easier on parents," McKenna said.

FixAppRatings has two main issues with current app ratings and regulations:

  1. App ratings and descriptions are "largely self-rated by the developers themselves and ratings are not enforced for accuracy."
  2. Parental control devices are complicated and hard to use.

A potential solution for the first problem could be creating an independent oversight organization.

"We’re not proposing anything different for apps than what has been deemed appropriate for kids," Pulsipher said. "I believe it will take a threat of government regulation, just like it did with the video game industry, for them to create some kind of self-regulating board that is composed of child development experts and the tech industry."

Pulsipher compared this resolution to what has been done with movies.

"When your children ask you about a movie, you check what it's rated," she said. "What I like about this is that it’s not government controlling and telling them what to do, it’s actually asking private industry to make these modifications and make a system of what parents know what to expect on different apps."

To address the second problem, #FixAppRatings wants to have "age-based default safety and privacy settings" on certain popular devices and apps.

"Every single device that you give to a kid, if you’re truthful, knows the age of the person using it," McKenna said. "If you knew that a 13-year-old was using an iPhone, wouldn’t you have Safari lock in its Safe Search?"

Since December 2018, McKay and McKenna have been working with legislators at the local and federal levels to spread the concern and offer solutions. The National Center for Exploited Children lent its support and so did Weiler.

The pair has also met with Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, and the topic was discussed at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing about protecting children’s online privacy in July.

"This is a crisis affecting our children," Lee said at the hearing. "And it’s not an abstract one, it’s not a rare one."

While Lee gave credit to the two most popular app stores — Google Play and Apple — for using a form of an age-rating system aimed to "prevent children from being exposed to things that they should not be," he noted that some of the most popular apps can still expose children to sexually explicit content.

"Demanding or expecting that a child behave like a good internet citizen falls on deaf ears," Lee said at the meeting. "Especially when someone is encouraging a child to use an app that at times acts like a strip club."

At the hearing, McKenna added that Google Play and Apple app stores have different rating systems, making it harder for parents to discern what each app is about from a rating alone. He also told senators his group mainly wants transparency, so parents can be informed.

"So we want that unification to make them the same, make it transparent and provide some accountability so that when players in the app store are not giving information to parents as they should, that there’s some ramifications for that," Mckenna told the committee. "Otherwise, behavior is just never going to change."

As for what happens next, McKenna says they are still figuring it out. He continues to promote the website and awareness of the topic. On their website there is a draft resolution that can be in front of elected officials at the state level. Recently, the state of Louisiana passed a nonbinding resolution. In Utah, the resolution was passed in March and sent to to the governor.

"I think these are stances that are bipartisan that we can agree on," said McKenna.

While McKenna noted he didn’t necessarily think government had to be involved, he didn’t see the tech industry becoming self-regulating.

"It’s something that’s already being done on all the other media we consume — we’re not proposing anything different for apps than what has been deemed appropriate for kids."

Carrie Rogers-Whitehead

About the Author: Carrie Rogers-Whitehead

Carrie Rogers-Whitehead is the CEO of Digital Respons-Ability, and her company trains parents, educators and students on digital citizenship. She is also a college instructor, mother and author of the upcoming book “Digital Citizenship in Schools.”

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