Fordham professor explores gaps in mobile app ratings

Yilu Zhou

Yilu Zhou

By Claire Curry

More children use smartphones, tablets and mobile apps for fun and education every day. In fact, one survey found that 75 percent of children under the age of 8 have access to a smartphone or tablet, exposing them to limitless information—and the possibility of encountering inappropriate content.

There are standardized ratings for movies and video games, but no similar system that parents can use to determine whether a mobile app is appropriate for their child, according to Yilu Zhou, associate professor of information systems at the Gabelli School of Business. While some mobile platforms do offer maturity ratings, they are widely inconsistent.

A National Science Foundation grant awarded to Zhou this fall will provide the funding essential to conduct a large-scale study that could ultimately influence new policies for ratings standards.

“Children are the most vulnerable population in the mobile environment,” Zhou said, but “there are not many protections. There’s not enough research, yet children are using mobile phones and computers daily, even more than adults do.”

Zhou’s interest in exploring this area sprung from earlier studies on protecting children online. While many software programs make it possible to control what their children view on desktop and laptop computers, “the mobile environment is even less protected,” Zhou said.

With 1.2 million apps available on Apple’s iOS and 1.4 million on Google Play, and children actively using their parents’ phones and tablets, Zhou views the problem as urgent.

She is excited that the NSF grant will allow her to conduct cross-disciplinary research to confront this issue.

“Most people nowadays are concerned about their personal privacy online,” Zhou explained. “But this goes beyond that. It’s not a pure computing problem, nor a pure engineering problem. In fact, it’s really a social issue.”

The first step of this research will involve using big data to analyze a few hundred thousand apps and compare ratings between iOS and Google Play, platforms that have vastly different rating approaches. The team will use the resulting data to consider the basis for inconsistent ratings and identify factors that could raise a red flag.

“Even when an app has an appropriate maturity rating, you might encounter in-app advertisements that are definitely not appropriate for a child user,” she said. “We’ve seen violence, sexual content and nudity.” How is this possible? It may be because children are using their parents’ mobile devices, and that mobile advertising is not regulated in the same way as the broader advertising community.

Once the team collects initial data and conducts a statistical analysis, they will develop a simulated app to test and analyze in-app advertising data.

“This study is just the first step in looking into this phenomenon,” Zhou said. “Most people assume the maturity ratings are reliable. But this is an area that requires more attention.”

She hopes the outcome of this research will be reflected in policy and legal construction for the protection of children’s mobile safety. It stands to raise awareness among mobile platform providers and developers about the importance of evenly applied ratings and regulation in an environment that is continually evolving.

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