Scary apps on Google Play, and what to do about them

February 14, 2018

Jane, the mother of seven-year-old Samantha, was in the next room when she heard a horrible voice coming from the smartphone her daughter was playing with. She came running into the room as the voice continued: “You look afraid, is it this knife in my hands? Making you a little nervous? This knife is going to improve your look when it’s sticking right out of you.”

As it turned out, Samantha had downloaded some games from Google Play, and one of them was a spoof app in which the child received “calls” from characters in the popular cartoon Blaze and the Monster Machines (which is rated for ages 3+). But instead of kind-hearted characters telling children about science, the app played a recording of the voice of Slappy, the villain of R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps horror series (the movie based on the books had a PG/12+ rating).

Jane recorded what she had heard in the app and posted a video on YouTube to warn other parents. Google immediately removed the app from its online store.

Lately, there’s been a spike in news stories about large platforms struggling to cope with content moderation. YouTube videos keep rolling out in which violent versions of cartoon characters advocate self-harm (like a video of Peppa Pig drinking bleach), and the video streaming app Periscope often exposes the kids to inappropriate content. Google Play gets masses of new apps every day, and moderators cannot check everything in them.

But the overwhelming amount of content is no excuse, say worried parents. Parents themselves don’t necessarily have the time to moderate everything their children see. The path of least resistance is just to give the child a smartphone or tablet. But the example of Jane above shows that even children looking for appropriate entertainment can accidentally stumble across wholly inappropriate content for their age (or for any age, for that matter).

What can be done to avoid scary surprises?

For starters, don’t leave a child alone with a tablet or smartphone that has access to resources with user-created content (for example, YouTube). The Internet is a terrible babysitter.

  • Restrict children’s ability to install apps and games unsupervised. Learning to install apps and find content is very easy, especially for young digital natives, so set restrictions using a parental control application such as Kaspersky Safe Kids.
  • If you really need to keep your child busy for an hour or so, and the Internet is the only option, ditch YouTube and download a cartoon yourself, or use a streaming service that has a special kids section and set it up to keep your child in that area.