Q:

I'll admit to handing my iPhone over to my 4-year-old when we are waiting in a doctor's office or an older child is playing soccer. He won't read a book or color for that amount of time, but he will stay completely entranced with an app game. What are some of the criteria that I should follow to find an app that is safe for him to use and might even have some educational merit? -- App Lover

A:

We can certainly understand how difficult it is to find good apps for kids. After all, there are thousands of choices in the kids category, and some are definitely superior to others. Fortunately, there is Common Sense Media, an independent, nonprofit organization offering unbiased ratings and trusted advice to help families make smart media and technology choices. You can check out their ratings and recommendations at www.commonsensemedia.org.

Here are some of their tips that will not only lead you to apps that will pass the time, but also will be time and money well spent:

1. Is your kid ready? Keep your kid's age and development in mind. The app store might say 4-plus, but those age ratings don't tell the whole story. Though the game might be free of violence and other big-kid content, the controls might be too tricky for little hands. Read the description and see if the app fits your kid's abilities and temperament.

2. What does your kid love? Find a subject or activity your kid likes. From bugs to dolls to music, there are apps for every interest. Don't be afraid to stretch your kid, but do make sure there's something familiar that will hook his or her imagination.

3. How do your kids play, and what will they learn? Not every game tagged as "educational" in the app store has learning potential. Likewise, kids can learn from plenty of apps in other categories. So shop around. Consider the app's play pattern: Some games are full of exploration and don't have any set goals, whereas others follow a straight path and have clear rules. If educational value is important to you, decide which topics or skills your kid is ready for and try the app yourself first.

4. Is the app safe, and will it collect personal information? Read the privacy policy and check your device's settings. Some kids apps collect no personal information, have no ads and have simple privacy policies that don't require a lawyer to understand. Others have banner ads, in-app purchases and link to social networks. The most important thing is to know what you're getting and adjust the app's and your device's settings to control what you can.

5. Is it free or freemium? Determine the true cost before buying. Some apps are completely free. Other apps are initially free but require payments to unlock more levels. Others nickel and dime you from the get-go. Investigate the fee structure before you download.

6. What do other parents and third-party sites say? Look at ratings and reviews. If an app has reviews, read some to get a flavor for others' experiences.