06/26/2013 02:23 pm ET Updated Aug 26, 2013

Should Toddlers Play Apps Designed for Tweens?

Busy lives and tech gadgets make it easy to hand off a tablet to an anxious toddler for a little distraction. A study by Qualcomm showed that 53 percent of parents use technology to calm fussy kids. Now, playtime is just a click away.

A 2011 study by Pew Internet showed that of the apps downloaded for kids, 46 percent were for entertainment and 31 percent were learning-oriented. Parents intent on educating and entertaining their kids with tablets and smartphones can easily introduce them to such technology, but it's important to know a little about the apps they are using. With the rising quantity and variety of apps for tiny tots, be advised not all apps are created equal.

And since it's quite common for a younger child to play the apps an older child or adult is using, it's important to look at app ratings. To help consumers, ratings are assigned to all apps. For example, the iTunes Store uses the following age-based categories:
  • 4+
  • 9+
  • 12+
  • 17+
Google Play uses a "maturity" scale for rating apps, which is not exactly the same as Apple:
  • Everyone
  • Low Maturity
  • Medium Maturity
  • High Maturity

While these ratings were designed to help distinguish between age-appropriate apps, the age ranges are generic and do not specify what content is present. A "Medium" rated Android app may use crude humor, fantasy violence, profanity, sexually suggestive material, simulated gambling, drug or alcohol references, and sometimes hate speech. Does that sound like something you'd want a toddler viewing?

On iTunes, a "12+" app may include realistic or fantasy violence, mild/mature themes, suggestive themes, mild language, and simulated gambling.

In other words, well-intentioned programs that older kids play may show your little one more than you want, keeping them less than safe. Ratings attempt to help, but don't eliminate the need for parents to check out apps to protect kids.

With that in mind, the following is a short list of iTunes apps designed to nurture development, as well as to keep toddlers away from games that are too mature.
  • Peek-a-Zoo Series by Duck Duck Moose -- Kids explore sights, sounds and species of animals through touch-screen interaction.
  • Clicky Sticky Series - An interactive book with digital stickers you can click anywhere.
  • 123 Color HD Series - Kids learn words in multiple languages as they color.
  • Baby Phone-Free Musical Babies Game - Nursery rhymes, instruments and sound effects all interact by touch and fun.
  • Disney Storytime - Kids and adults can enjoy portable classic tales as e-book bundles of joy.

Websites like Common Sense Media and Babble explore app specifics, showing more exact age ranges for age-appropriate programs.

The iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch have built-in controls so parents can decide what content or apps are accessible. Age-appropriate setting configurations enable control over Safari, YouTube, iTunes, app installations, TV shows, videos, and music. For more information on Apple's built-in parental controls, click here.

Net Nanny and SafeEyes provide website content filtering when a child is browsing the Internet or when they click on a link within an app. With this tool in place, parents can feel safer about a small child 'accidentally' web browsing.

With apps that entertain as well as educate, the endless amount of options can overwhelm a parent. But the tools mentioned here should build upon, not replace a parent. The iPad should not be the new pacifier.

Now more than ever parents should be actively engaged in their toddler's digital playground.

Note: I work for Net Nanny; the opinions expressed here are my own.