There has been a lively debate about the potential to use app stores to impose age restrictions. For example, a new data protection law in India requires users to be 18+ to give consent for their personal data to be shared, so there is a ubiquitous need for online age verification before consent is obtained. Some global tech companies, including Meta, have argued that app stores should step up and perform this role, preventing users from accessing apps which are intended for adults. Others, such as Google (which we note operates its own app store) oppose this shift in responsibility from the apps and platforms to app stores.
But could age assurance by app stores solve the problem of how to protect children from inappropriate adult content online? There are a number of reasons to believe this would not offer a comprehensive solution:
- Limited Effectiveness of Age Ratings: While app stores often assign age ratings to apps and games, these ratings may not accurately reflect the content and functional appropriateness for all users within a particular age group. The rating may be proposed by the designer of the app when it is submitted to the app store, but there may be no further checks on whether that is the most appropriate age-rating if there is user-generated content, for example.
- In-App Purchases and Advertisements: Even if age restrictions are enforced during the app installation process, in-app purchases and advertisements within apps may still expose children to adult content or inappropriate material. Advertisements, in particular, may not be subject to the same age restrictions as the content within the app.
- Third-Party App Stores and Sideloading: Users can sometimes install apps from third-party stores or sideload apps, bypassing official app store restrictions altogether. This method allows users to access content that may not have undergone the same scrutiny and age verification processes as apps available on official stores.
- Dynamic Content Updates: Apps and content within them can be regularly updated. Age verification during the initial installation may not address changes in content over time. As apps evolve and introduce new features or content, age restrictions may become outdated or insufficient.
- Lack of Uniform Standards: Different app stores may have varying policies and practices regarding age verification. Inconsistencies in the enforcement of age restrictions across platforms can lead to gaps in protecting children from inappropriate content.
- Shared devices: An older user may be logged into the device and app store and download apps which are then accessed by a younger user who gets access to that device with or without the knowledge or consent of the original user. There is no opportunity for regular authentication to check that the current user is the same user who has proven their age to the app store.
To address these challenges effectively, a comprehensive approach to online safety is necessary. This includes combining any app store limits with online age verification measures applied by the publisher to content only it can know is inappropriate for particular age groups. This complements educational efforts, device and ISP based parental controls, and open communication between parents or guardians and children. But it is a mistake to think app store age restrictions would be a silver bullet.