A majority of U.S. teens are taking steps to limit smartphone and social media use

It’s not just parents who are worrying about their children’s device usage. According to a new study released by Pew Research Center this week, U.S. teens are now taking steps to limit themselves from overuse of their phone and its addictive apps, like social media. A majority, 54% of teens, said they spend too much time on their phone, and nearly that many – 52% – said they are trying to limit their phone use in various ways.

In addition, 57% say they’re trying to limit social media usage and 58% are trying to limit video games.

The fact that older children haven’t gotten a good handle on balanced smartphone usage points to a failure on both parents’ parts and the responsibilities of technology companies to address the addictive nature of our devices.

For years, instead of encouraging more moderate use of smartphones, as the tools they’re meant to be, app makers took full advantage of smartphones’ always-on nature to continually send streams of interruptive notifications that pushed users to constantly check in. Tech companies even leveraged psychological tricks to reward us each time we launched their app, with dopamine hits that keep users engaged.

Device makers loved this addiction because they financially benefited from app sales and in-app purchases, in addition to device sales. So they built ever more tools to give apps access to users’ attention, instead of lessening it.

For addicted teens, parents were of little help as they themselves were often victims of this system, too.

Today, tech companies are finally waking up to the problem. Google and Apple have now both built in screen time monitoring and control tools into their mobile operating systems, and even dopamine drug dealers like Facebook, Instagram and YouTube have begun to add screen time reminders and other “time well spent” features.

But these tools have come too late to prevent U.S. children from developing bad habits with potentially harmful side effects.

Pew says that 72% of teens are reaching for their phones as soon as they wake up; four-in-ten feel anxious without their phone; 56% report that not have their phone with them can make them feel lonely, upset or anxious; 51% feel their parents are distracted by phones during conversations (72% of parents say this is true, too, when trying to talk to teens); and 31% say phones distract them in class.

The problems are compounded by the fact that smartphones aren’t a luxury any longer – they’re in the hands of nearly all U.S. teens, 45% of whom are almost constantly online.

The only good news is that today’s teens seem to be more aware of the problem, even if their parents failed to teach balanced use of devices in their own home.

Nine-in-ten teens believe that spending too much time online is a problem, and 60% say it’s a major problem. 41% say they spend too much time on social media.

In addition, some parents are starting to take aim at the problem, as well, with 57% reporting they’ve set some screen time restrictions for their teens.

Today’s internet can be a toxic place, and not one where people should spend large amounts of time.

Social networking one the top activities taking place on smartphones, reports show.

But many of these networks were built by young men who couldn’t conceive of all the ways things could go wrong. They failed to build in robust controls from day one to prevent things like bullying, harassment, threats, misinformation, and other issues.

Instead, these protections have been added on after the fact – after the problems became severe. And, some could argue, that was too late. Social media is something that’s now associated with online abuse and disinformation, with comment thread fights and trolling, and with consequences that range from teen suicides to genocide.

If we are unable to give up our smartphones and social media for the benefits they do offer, at the very least we should be monitoring and moderating our use of them at this point.

Thankfully, as this study shows, there’s growing awareness of this among younger users, and maybe, some of them will even do something about it in the future – when they’re the bosses, the parents, and the engineers, they can craft new work/life policies, make new house rules, and write better code.

Amazon’s Echo Dot Kids Edition gains new skills from Disney and others

Amazon is today rolling out a set of new features to its Echo Dot Kids Edition devices – the now $70 version of the Echo Dot smart speaker that ships with a protective case and a year’s subscription to Amazon FreeTime, normally a $2.99 per month subscription for Prime members. Now joining the Kids Edition’s parental controls and other exclusive content are new skills from Disney, Hotel Transylvania, and Pac-Man as well as a calming “Sleep Sounds” skill for bedtime.

There are now four new skills that play sounds of thunderstorms, rain, the ocean, or a babbling brook, as well as an all-encompassing “sleep sounds” skill that offers 42 different soothing options to choose from. New parents may be glad to know that this includes baby soothing sounds like cars, trains and the vacuum (don’t knock it until you try it, folks. It works.)

Amazon clarified to us that while there is a version of sleep sounds in the Skill Store today, this version launching on the Kids Edition is a different, child-directed version.

Also new to the Kids Edition is “Disney Plot Twist,” which is like a Disney version of Mad Libs where players change out words and phrases in short adventure stories. The skill features popular Disney characters like Anna, Olaf and Christoff as the narrators and is exclusive to Kids Edition devices.

The new movie “Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation” is featured in another new skill, Drac’s Pack, which includes monster stories, songs and jokes.

Meanwhile, Pac-Man Stories is a skill that includes interactive stories for the whole family, that work similar to choose-your-own-adventures – that is, the decisions you make will affect the ending.

Both of these are broadly available on Alexa, meaning they don’t require a Kids Edition device to access.

Stories, however, does appear to be one of the areas Amazon is investing in to make its Alexa-powered speakers more appealing to families with young children. The company recently decided to stop working on its chat stories app Amazon Rapids, saying it will instead continue to adapt those Amazon Rapids stories for the Alexa platform.

Amazon also tries to market the Echo Dot Kids Edition to families by making some kid-friendly content, like Disney Plot Twist, available exclusively to device owners.

For example, it already offers exclusive kid skills like Disney Stories, Loud House Challenge, No Way That’s True, Funny Fill In, Spongebob Challenge, Weird but True, Name that Animal, This or That, Word world, Ben ten, Classroom thirteen, Batman Adventures, and Climb the Beanstalk, with this device.

But the Kids Edition can also be confusing to use, because the exclusive skills come whitelisted and ready to go, while other kid-safe skills have to be manually whitelisted through a parents dashboard. And there isn’t enough instruction either from Alexa or in the Alexa app on this process, at present, we found when testing the device earlier.

Unless there’s a specific exclusive skill that parents really want their kids to have, the savings are also minimal when buying the Kids Edition Dot/FreeTime bundle, versus buying a regular Dot and adding on FreeTime separately.

Amazon Rapids, the chat fiction for kids, is now free

Amazon Rapids, the chat fiction that encourages kids to read by presenting stories in the form of text message conversations, is now going free. Previously, Amazon had been charging $2.99 per month for a subscription that allows unlimited access to its story collection, which now numbers in the hundreds.

First launched in November 2016, Amazon Rapids was meant to capitalize on kids’ interest in chat fiction apps like Hooked, Yarn, Tap and others, which tend to cater to a slightly older teenage crowd. Amazon Rapids, meanwhile, was the schoolager-appropriate version, without the swearing, alcohol, sex and yeah, even incest references you’ll find in the Hooked app, for example. (Yuck. Delete.)

Instead, Amazon Rapids’ stories are aimed at kids ages 5 to 12 and generally just silly and fun. They’re not meant to addict kids through the use of cliffhangers and timeouts, nor are they scary.

Some of the app’s stories also serve as crossovers that helped promote Amazon’s kids’ TV shows, like “Danger & Eggs,” and “Niko and the Sword of Light.” These were authored by the shows’ writers, allowing them to extend the show’s universe in a natural way.

In addition, the app included educational features like a built-in glossary and a read-along mode to help younger readers.

However, the app wasn’t heavily marketed by Amazon, and many parents don’t even know it exists, it seems.

According to data from Sensor Tower, Amazon Rapids has been installed only around 120,000+ times to date, three quarters of which are on iOS. (Subscription revenue goes through Amazon, not the app stores, so the firm doesn’t have a figure for that.)

Amazon Rapids is ranked pretty low on the App Store, at No. 1105 for iPhone downloads in the Education category, and No. 1001 on iPad. The highest it ever reached was No. 65 on iPad.

Oddly, it chose not to compete in the “Books” category, where the other chat fiction apps reside, as do the other non-traditional “book” apps, like Wattpad’s crowd-sourced fiction app, Audible’s audiobooks app, various comics apps, and others.

Amazon now says that the hundreds of stories in Rapids will be free going forward. Families can also listen to some of these stories through the Storytime Alexa skill, launched last summer, which includes stories from Amazon Rapids, along with others.

Given Amazon Rapids’ small user base, it’s clear that Amazon no longer believes it makes sense to try to sell subscriptions, and likely now sees its database of stories as more of a value-add for Alexa owners.

That said, it’s unclear what this means for Rapids’ future development and story catalog, which may not continue to grow. (We’ve asked Amazon if it plans to keep adding content to Rapids, and will update if the company responds.)

Roblox responds to the hack that allowed a child’s avatar to be raped in its game

There’s a special place in Hell for people who think it’s funny to rape a 7-year-old girl’s avatar in an online virtual world designed for children. Yes, that happened. Roblox, a hugely popular online game for kids, was hacked by an individual who subverted the game’s protection systems in order to have customized animations appear. This allowed two male avatars to gang rape a young girl’s avatar on a playground in one of the Roblox games.

The company has now issued an apology to the victim and its community, and says it has determined how the hacker was able to infiltrate its system so it can prevent future incidents.

The mother of the child, whose avatar was the victim of the in-game sexual assault, was nearby when the incident took place. She says her child showed her what was happening on the screen and she took the device away, fortunately shielding her daughter from seeing most of the activity. The mother then captured screenshots of the event in order to warn others.

She described the incident in a public Facebook post that read, in part:

At first, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. My sweet and innocent daughter’s avatar was being VIOLENTLY GANG-RAPED ON A PLAYGROUND by two males. A female observer approached them and proceeded to jump on her body at the end of the act. Then the 3 characters ran away, leaving my daughter’s avatar laying on her face in the middle of the playground.

Words cannot describe the shock, disgust, and guilt that I am feeling right now, but I’m trying to put those feelings aside so I can get this warning out to others as soon as possible. Thankfully, I was able to take screenshots of what I was witnessing so people will realize just how horrific this experience was. *screenshots in comments for those who can stomach it* Although I was immediately able to shield my daughter from seeing the entire interaction, I am shuddering to think of what kind of damage this image could have on her psyche, as well as any other child that could potentially be exposed to this.

Roblox has since issued a statement about the attack:

Roblox’s mission is to inspire imagination and it is our responsibility to provide a safe and civil platform for play. As safety is our top priority — we have robust systems in place to protect our platform and users. This includes automated technology to track and monitor all communication between our players as well as a large team of moderators who work around the clock to review all the content uploaded into a game and investigate any inappropriate activity. We provide parental controls to empower parents to create the most appropriate experience for their child, and we provide individual users with protective tools, such as the ability to block another player.

The incident involved one bad actor that was able to subvert our protective systems and exploit one instance of a game running on a single server. We have zero tolerance for this behavior and we took immediate action to identify how this individual created the offending action and put safeguards in place to prevent it from happening again. In addition, the offender was identified and permanently banned from the platform. Our work on safety is never-ending and we are committed to ensuring that one individual does not get in the way of the millions of children who come to Roblox to play, create, and imagine.

The timing of the incident is particularly notable for the kids’ gaming platform, which has more than 60 million monthly active users and is now raising up to $150 million to grow its business. The company has been flying under the radar for years, while quietly amassing a large audience of both players and developers who build its virtual worlds. Roblox recently stated that it expects to pay out its content creators $70 million in 2018, which is double that of last year. 

Roblox has a number of built-in controls to guard against bad behavior, including a content filter and a system that has moderators reviewing images, video and audio files before they’re uploaded to Roblox’s site. It also offers parental controls that let parents decide who can chat with their kids, or the ability to turn chat off. And parents can restrict kids under 13 from accessing anything but a curated list of age-appropriate games.

However, Roblox was also in the process of moving some of its older user-generated games to a newer system that’s more secure. The hacked game was one of several that could have been exploited in a similar way.

Since the incident, Roblox had its developers remove all the other potentially vulnerable games and ask their creators to move them over to the newer, more fortified system. Most have done so, and those who have not will not see their games allowed back online until that occurs. The games that are online now are not vulnerable to the exploit the hacker used.

The company responded quickly to take action, in terms of taking the game offline, banning the player and reaching out the mother — who has since agreed to help Roblox get the word out to others about the safeguards parents can use to protect kids in Roblox further.

But the incident raises questions as to whether kids should be playing these sorts of massive multiplayer games at such a young age at all.

Roblox, sadly, is not surprised that someone was interested in a hack like this.

YouTube is filled with videos of Roblox rape hacks and exploits, in fact. The company submits takedown requests to YouTube when videos like this are posted, but YouTube only takes action on a fraction of the requests. (YouTube has its own issues around content moderation.)

It’s long past time for there to be real-world ramifications for in-game assaults that can have lasting psychological consequences on victims, when those victims are children.

Roblox, for its part, is heavily involved in discussions about what can be done, but the issue is complex. COPPA laws prevent Roblox from collecting data on its users, including their personal information, because the law is meant to protect kids’ privacy. But the flip side of this is that Roblox has no way of tracking down hackers like this.

“I think that we’re not the only one pondering the challenges of this. I think every platform company out there is struggling with the same thing,” says Tami Bhaumik, head of marketing and community safety at Roblox.

“We’re members of the Family Online Safety Institute, which is over 30 companies who share best practices around digital citizenship and child safety and all of that,” she continues. “And this is a constant topic of conversation that we all have – in terms of how do we use technology, how do we use A.I. and machine learning? Do we work with the credit card companies to try to verify [users]? How do we get around not violating COPPA regulations?,” says Bhaumik.

“The problem is super complex, and I don’t think anyone involved has solved that yet,” she adds.

One solution could be forcing parents to sign up their kids and add a credit card, which would remain uncharged unless kids broke the rules.

That could dampen user growth to some extent — locking out the under-banked, those hesitant to use their credit cards online and those just generally distrustful of gaming companies and unwanted charges. It would mean kids couldn’t just download the app and play.

But Roblox has the momentum and scale now to lock things down. There’s enough demand for the game that it could create more of a barrier to entry if it chose to, in an effort to better protect users. After all, if players knew they’d be fined (or their parents would be), it would be less attractive to break the rules.

Amazon FreeTime Unlimited finally lands on Apple’s App Store

Five and half years after it launched, one of the more popular apps for kids’ reading and entertainment has finally arrived on the iOS. Amazon FreeTime Unlimited, the e-commerce giant’s subscription service for children 3-12 that gives unlimited access to 10,000 books, movies and TV shows for $2.99 per month for up to four users across tablets, phones, e-readers, and smart speakers, is now available on the App Store.

Apple is promoting the new app at the moment on the home page of the App Store, where a reader saw it and flagged it to us.

“We launch new products and features as they’re ready,” an Amazon spokesperson said. “We’re excited to bring theFreeTime Unlimited experience to iOS devices, including iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch.”

FreeTime Unlimited is already available on Amazon devices and on Android. Now, when users sign up for a subscription on any one platform, they can use it across all of them — whether it be a Fire tablet, a Fire Kids Edition tablet, compatible Android phones and tablets, or compatible Echo devices.

The move is a significant one both for Apple and Amazon. At a time when other media companies are launching kid-friendly versions of their services that bring in more parental controls and better filters to help block out content that is inappropriate for young ones, FreeTime Unlimited has proven to be one of the most popular kids-focused entertainment apps of them all — content includes video from Disney, Nickelodeon, Sesame Street, PBS Kids, National Geographic and Amazon Originals for Kids — and yet it wasn’t available on one of the most popular (and well reviewed) tablets used by children.

While Amazon initially kept it as an Amazon-only product for its early years — as a way of driving more sales to its own hardware — last year it finally launched a version for Android devices, but it’s taken over a year more to finally bring it to iPhone and iPad devices.

One of the reasons for this could be the ongoing struggle between Amazon and Apple. In some regards, the two are complementary companies: Amazon ships a lot of Apple products, and iOS is a very strong platform for Amazon in terms of online sales, for example.

But in others — such as in hardware, increasingly online entertainment and “owning” customers, and for talent to build its products — the two are rivals. Apple, for one, has not allowed apps on its iOS platform to enable Amazon book purchases directly from their apps, and Amazon doesn’t sell books and movies from its own app to avoid Apple’s cut. So it’s not surprising to see Amazon also delay certain content and features from the Apple platform in some kind of tit-for-tat.

I’m guessing those skirmishes will go on for a long time to come, but for now, iPad and iPhone users will have a little more Amazon than they did before on their devices. Why now? It could be that Amazon felt that user growth was tailing off on the other platforms, so now is a good time to boost with new availability.

It’s also likely influenced by Apple’s increased attention to parental control features on iOS, which may have some parents feel like they have enough options to lock down their kids’ devices while still allowing them access to more wholesome and educational content. That could limit the appeal for a subscription service like Amazon’s FreeTime Unlimited. But iOS 12 – which includes the new parental controls – doesn’t launch to the public until later this fall. That gives Amazon time to attract users to its own service in the meantime.

As with the existing version of FreeTime Unlimited, the app is divided into age groups and will have parental controls by way of the Amazon Parent Dashboard, as well as Discussion Cards that give them talking points about the work and summaries of what the kids are watching.

 

There may be variations based on geographies, but in the US the content will include films like Frozen, Moana, Star Wars, and Inside Out; TV shows like Sesame Street, Arthur, and Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood from PBS; Bubble Guppies, Team Umizoomi, and Dora the Explorer from Nickelodeon; Marvel comics including Spider-man, the Avengers, and Captain America; and Amazon Originals such as Just Add Magic, The Kicks, Thunderbirds are Go, Creative Galaxy, and Tumble Leaf.

One drawback to the iOS implementation of FreeTime Unlimited is that, unlike on Amazon’s own tablets, you can’t configure FreeTime Unlimited to completely reskin the device’s user interface to keep kids locked into the experience. Apple simply doesn’t allow third-party apps to have that level of control. Instead, FreeTime Unlimited works like any other app – you can launch it and exit at any time.

As with other apps, subscribing to FreeTime Unlimited will come via a user’s iTunes account (and thus Apple will get a cut) and will get automatically renewed until you turn off the auto-renewal 24 hours before the renewal date. There is also a free 30-day trial.

 

Roblox follows Minecraft into the education market

Roblox, the massively multiplayer online game favored by the under 13 crowd, is following in Minecraft’s footsteps with a move into the education market. The company this morning announced a new education initiative, Roblox Education, that will offer a free curriculum to educators, along with international summer coding camps, and a free online “Creator Challenge” in partnership with Universal Brand Development, which will see kids building Roblox games inspired by Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. 

The gaming company has been around for many years, but only recently reached a critical mass where it was ready to talk about its numbers. Today, Roblox sees over 60 million monthly active users, and its creator community building new worlds for kids to explore has doubled to 2 million this year from the year prior, it said earlier this year.

Roblox gets kids coding by hooking them on the game itself when they’re young – around elementary school age. By middle school, users are downloading Roblox Studio to build their own games and experiences. And by high school, they’ve learned to code to customize their games even further.

And the kids aren’t just building for fun – there’s money to be made, too. The top creators make two to three million a year, the company claims. The games are free, but creators monetize through the sale of virtual goods. Roblox says it paid out $30 million to its creator community last year, and is now cash-flow positive.

With Roblox Education, the aim is to get more kids coding by working with educators directly.

The new curriculum offers teachers 12 hours of step-by-step tutorials, handouts, technical setup guides, outlines, lesson guides, and more. It’s shared freely under a Creative Commons license so teachers can use or modify it as they see fit. In the future, the curriculum will be expanded to include other subjects, as well, like Physics and Design, the company says.

In addition, teaching kids how to use Roblox Studio will be the main focus of more than 500 coding camps and online programs this summer in the U.S., U.K. Hong Kong, Singapore, Canada, Spain, Brazil, and Portugal. The kids will learn how to create, publish and market their games to others.

 

The company will also run its 4th annual Roblox Summer Accelerator, and host 45 young developers at its HQ for the summer. The program has previously produced some of the more popular Roblox titles, like MeepCity and Lumber Tycoon.

And it will host its annual Roblox Developer Conference in San Francisco July 13-15, 2018, and in Amsterdam August 17-19, 2018. It’s doubling the number of attendees this year at both.

Finally, Roblox will host its first Creator Challenge with Universal, where kids learn tricks of game building via a Jurassic Park-themed, self-paced course.

“Roblox’s mission is to power and fuel imagination while inspiring a new generation of creators,” said Grace Francisco, VP of Developer Relations at Roblox, said in a statement about the launch. ”We are thrilled to be launching our education initiative that gives young people of all ages and backgrounds the chance to develop the crucial skills needed to be tomorrow’s entrepreneurs and creators.”

Tencent and education startup Age of Learning bring popular English-learning app ABCmouse to China

Tencent is teaming up with Los Angeles-based education company Age of Learning to launch an English education program for kids in China. ABCmouse, Age of Learning’s flagship product, has been localized and will be available as a website and an iOS and Android app in China, with Tencent handling product development, marketing, sales and customer support.

The new partnership extends Tencent’s involvement in ed-tech, which already includes a strategic investment in VIPKID, an online video tutoring platform that connects Chinese kids with English teachers and competes with QKids and Dada ABC. ABCmouse, on the other hand, uses videos, books and online activities like games, songs and stories to help kids study English.

The Chinese version of ABCmouse includes integration with Tencent’s ubiqutioius messenger and online services platform WeChat, which now has more than one billion users, and its instant messaging service QQ, with 783 million monthly active users. This makes it easier for parents to sign up and pay for ABCmouse, because they can use their WeChat or QQ account and payment information. It also allows families to share kids’ English-learning progress on their news feeds or in chats. For example, Chen says parents can send video or audio recordings of their children practicing English to grandparents, who can then buy gift subscriptions with one click.

Though you probably haven’t heard of it unless you have young kids or work with elementary school-age children, Age of Learning has built a significant presence in online education since it was founded in 2007, thanks mainly to the popularity of ABCmouse in schools, public libraries and Head Start programs. Two years ago, Age of Learning hit unicorn status after raising $150 million at a $1 billion valuation from Iconiq Capital.

Jerry Chen, Age of Learning’s president of Greater China, says there are more than 110 million kids between the ages of three to eight in China and the online English language learning market there is “a several billion dollar market that’s growing rapidly.” He points to a recent study by Chinese research agency Yiou Intelligence that says total spending on online English learning programs for children will be 29.41 billion RMB, or about $4.67 billion, this year, and is projected to reach 79.17 billion, or $12.6 billion, by 2022.

The localization of ABCmouse will extend to the design of its eponymous cartoon rodent, who has a more stylized appearance in China. Lessons include animations featuring an English teacher and students in an international school classroom and begin with listening comprehension and speaking before moving onto phonics, reading and writing. Tencent-Age of Learning products will also include speech recognition tools to help kids hone their English pronunciation.

In an email, Jason Chen, Tencent’s general manager of online education, said that the company “reviewed several companies through an extensive research process, and it became clear that ABCmouse had the most engaging and effective online English self-learning curriculum and content for children. Age of Learning puts learning first, and that commitment to educational excellence made them a perfect fit for our online English language learning business.”

 

Edtech company Kidaptive raises $19.1 million for its adaptive learning platform

 Edtech startup Kidaptive, an adaptive-learning company that begin its life with a suite of curriculum-focused iPad games for kids, announced today it has closed on $19.1 million in Series C funding, in a round led by Formation 8 and Korean education company Woongjin ThinkBig. The investment follows a deal with Woongjin that will see Kidaptive powering an English language learning system… Read More

DreamWorksTV launches its first over-the-top streaming service on Amazon Channels

 Awesomeness, the digital media company acquired by Comcast for $3.8 billion in 2016, is today bringing kid-friendly programming, including original content, to Amazon Prime subscribers with the launch of DreamWorksTV on Amazon Channels. The new subscription service is aimed at kids ages 6 through 12 and will cost $4.99 per month after a 7-day free trial period. Until now, DreamWorksTV has… Read More

Google is shutting down Chrome’s parental control features, replacement to launch later this year

 Google is preparing to launch a new set of parental control features for users of its Chrome browser. The announcement was made in an email sent this week to users of its current system for parental controls and other restrictions called “Chrome Supervised Users,” which is soon shutting down. Read More