Many parents have downloaded apps and games for the children onto their own smartphones

150 150 Joanna Mundy

Many parents have downloaded apps and games for the children onto their own smartphones

Controlling racing cars with your mobile phone, board games with smartphone support and classic children’s books as an app: the range of digital toys for children is broader and more diverse than ever before. Which makes it all the more difficult for parents to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Wooden toys, building blocks and cuddly toys are a thing of the past. Many children today own smartphones and tablets. Small programs for playing and learning are now available for three-year-olds. And books or board games are being combined with apps more and more often.

In recent years, plenty of new digital ideas have been presented at toy and game fairs. In the meantime, however, the stream of new products has subsided somewhat, says expert Thomas Feibel. "The variety of apps on offer is amazing at the moment, and you’re slowly getting tired", says Feibel, who organizes the Tommi German Children’s Software Prize with his office for children’s media. "The days of really big innovations are also over."

Is it worth buying? Games & Apps checked by Thomas Feibel

Little surprises

Whatever the reason, it seems that everything has already been invented. For example, there are now children’s books like that "LeYo!"Series by Carlsen in which young readers use their smartphone cameras to search for hidden content and small surprises. Experts call this technology augmented reality. Board games have long since migrated to smartphones. And older people control them with electronic toys like "Anki Overdrive" even racing cars via app.


Such ideas are currently very popular, says Thomas Feibel – not only with racing cars, but also with drones, for example. "These are ingenious things, but often also very expensive"the expert said. In contrast, children’s apps without accessories are significantly cheaper or even free. The problem here is rather the breadth of the offer.

Do not rely on recommendations

"Finding a good app by chance is very difficult. You have to look and research a bit"says Martina Holler. Together with her colleague Felicitas Haas, she puts on her blog "Ene Mene Mobile" successful apps for children and young people. Because parents can only rely on the recommendations of the App Store, Google Play and Co to a limited extent, says Holler. The app store recommendations have gotten better: "However, there are still too few or always the same apps recommended."

Which is a shame in view of the gigantic variety. "There are apps for playing and learning, there are puzzle and hidden object book apps or children’s book classics", lists Holler.

Especially with the apps for smaller children, games can hardly be separated from learning apps or virtual picture books. The digital version of the Janosch classic "Oh how nice is Panama" also contains a few small games, the app non-fiction book "This is my body" comes across as very playful. And the memory game "Flip Flip with Bato" not only trains the memory, but also trains the ear in sound mode.

Be careful with in-app purchases

"A good app, for example, needs to use the technical capabilities of a tablet or smartphone", thinks Holler. "This is then also funnier or cooler for the children, and then they feel more interested in dealing with it." On the other hand, very brief or poorly translated app descriptions without a preview video or image are not a good sign.

Of course, parents should also make sure that apps don’t bombard their children with ads or in-app purchases. "Free apps in particular are often financed this way"says Holler. One reason why the expert rather recommends paid apps: "While there are good free apps out there, paid apps are often better." Nobody has to rush into expenses for this: Six euros is already the highest price range for the vast majority of children’s apps.

Not under three years

In principle, children under the age of three should not use mobile devices with apps, advises the initiative "Look at! What your child does with Media". At that age, it is even more important to explore the real world. After that, nothing speaks against a few virtual adventures – but only together with mom or dad and no longer than 30 minutes a day. Later, parents can leave the devices to their children for longer and alone. Before doing this, it is best to activate common child safety and youth protection settings.

Mobile devices promote creativity and media skills Smartphones and tablets open up possibilities for children far beyond just playing, watching and listening: "I find children’s apps most exciting when they turn the smartphone or tablet into a design medium"says Feibel. "So if I can use it to create my own music, comics, e-books, videos or film trailers."Such creative apps are interesting from the age of eight, according to the expert, who himself regularly gives seminars with students. "Such apps and options are very popular." And that’s not all: Such apps can even be a way to playfully train the media skills of young users, says Feibel. "On such a path, students are even interested in topics such as data protection or copyright."

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Smartphones, tablet PCs and the mobile Internet in children’s hands pose new challenges for parents. The devices are coveted status symbols and are on many wish lists at Christmas. But children need to be educated about cost traps and data protection risks. Experts give tips.

Kids portal

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A general age recommendation, from when children are allowed to have a smartphone, does not make sense. Instead, parents should ask themselves: "Is my child ready for it yet? Can it recognize dangers? Does it stick to agreed rules?", explains Dana Urban from the Federal Conference for Educational Advice.

Above all, parents must ensure that their children can use the device responsibly, explain experts from the EU initiative "Click safe" at the State Agency for Media in North Rhine-Westphalia. When choosing a cell phone, parents should be guided by what they can trust their child and for what purposes they would like to use the device, for example making calls, writing messages, surfing the Internet or playing games.

Young cell phone and smartphone users should know where they can and cannot disclose personal information. A sensible use of money and general experience with the Internet are also necessary. Even if children take over their parents’ smartphones or tablets that have been decommissioned, the value of the device should be made clear to them and, if necessary, they should share the costs.

Experts advise against using children’s cell phones

There are also special children’s cell phones with reduced functions, but because they differ significantly from models for adults, there is a risk that the children will be exposed to the ridicule of their peers. The media experts therefore recommend giving the next generation a real cell phone or smartphone and agreeing on clear rules for use or blocking problematic services. Smaller children, who mainly want to play on their mobile phones, can be given a decommissioned device without a SIM card.


Many parents have downloaded apps and games for the children onto their own smartphones. A simple trick protects against expensive surprises: Simply switch on flight mode before the children are allowed to play on the mobile phone. Then all radio connections are cut and the offspring can neither access the Internet nor make calls. The games work anyway.

Communicate rules for sending photos

Messenger programs such as WhatsApp or Snapchat are used intensively by many children and young people, as are apps for social networks such as Facebook. Users need to know that they are not allowed to send private or intimate pictures and films – especially not from other people because their personal rights are being violated. This even applies to apps like Snapchat, which automatically delete the messages after a short time.

Copyright infringement is also a delicate matter. Parents should make their offspring aware of how to deal with other people’s works such as photos, texts and films, educate them about copyrights on the internet and warn them against illegal downloading and copying of movies, music files, computer games and apps.

Apps can be cost traps and data octopuses

Apps are a dime a dozen. Applications suitable for younger children are noisy "Click safe" easy to use, non-violent, stimulate the imagination, dispense with advertising and links to social networks or app stores, and they do not offer the possibility of buying extensions that are subject to a fee.

Parents should consider:

Avoid cost traps Children have to switch off and be able to endure not being available to clarify which private pictures are posted of themselves and the family

In principle, children and young people should be able to correctly assess the programs. This includes, for example, recognizing chargeable offers and data octopuses and, if in doubt, rather not installing them – even if these are fun apps that are currently popular with friends. Caution is advised when apps request access to sensitive data such as saved contacts, photos or location data.

If parents do not yet trust their child to make an assessment, they can block the download of new apps with a password. Children can only install new programs and games together with their mother or father.

Third-party lock protects against rip-offs

Sometimes a careless mouse click on an advertising banner leads to a subscription trap. The safest protection against rip-offs through paid subscriptions and value-added services, for example for ring tones or game extensions, is the third-party lock. This allows you to block all services that cause costs apart from the existing mobile phone contract. Parents can have their cell phone provider set up third-party lock for their children’s cell phone. This is usually possible via the provider’s hotline.

Danger in public WLAN networks

The media experts advise making the children familiar with the device’s security and privacy settings. They point out that public WLANs in cafés and fast food restaurants are mostly unsecured, which means that third parties can access their own mobile phones. Therefore automatic dial-in into public WLAN networks should be deactivated. Young smartphone users should also ensure that they only activate the Bluetooth function for transferring data from cell phone to cell phone for as long as it is really needed.

These tips from "Click safe" parents can convey to their offspring:

Ten app tips for children and teenagers

Less is more Nobody needs over 100 apps on their mobile phones. Only install programs that you really need. Be critical Customer reviews say nothing about the security of an app. Research online what others say about the app and whether there are warnings about rip-offs. Avoid unknown download sources. Only download apps from official app stores. Check what the app wants from you. Check the app’s permissions before downloading. For example, does a game app require access to the address book? If in doubt, decline and look for another app. Check the terms and conditions Especially with regard to paid services, it is important to read the terms and conditions carefully and look carefully for passages with references to euros or dollars. If you don’t understand something, ask your parents: Keep control of updatesApps shouldn’t update automatically. Carry out updates yourself and watch out for changes to access rights. Do not reveal your location for no reason Only switch on GPS and location services when you really need them, for example with a navigation app. This also applies to WLAN and Bluetooth. Not everything is free Free apps are often financed through advertisements. Because the content or functions behind it are unclear, they should not be clicked on. This also applies to purchases made directly from the app. This function can be blocked.Virus protection for mobile phonesIf you use your mobile phone to access the Internet, you should install an anti-virus app. It is best to save photos and contact data regularly on other devices, such as the PC. Stay up to date Install updates for the operating system and apps regularly. But always check afterwards whether access rights and security settings have changed.

Ten mobile phone tips for parents

Recognize the importance of cell phones or smartphones for adolescents. Bring up the topic "mobile phone" A family matter. Agree on clear mobile phone rules. Point out risks. Create mobile-free times and be a role model. Do not look secretly at your child’s cell phone. Avoid a cell phone ban. Make the cell phone an issue again and again. Do it Make your child a mobile phone professional. Use the mobile phone creatively.

More information about cell phones, apps and mobile internet

The parent’s guide "Smart mobile ?!" is available as a free download at and on the website of the State Media Authority of North Rhine-Westphalia. The initiative "Click safe" also has one "Smart mobile"!"-Quiz created with which children and young people can test their knowledge of smartphones and apps. App tests, warnings and safety information are available on the page.

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Joanna Mundy

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