All posts in “parents”

YouTube Kids adds a whitelisting parental control feature, plus a new experience for tweens

YouTube Kids’ latest update is giving parents more control over what their kids watch. Following a change earlier this year that allowed parents to limit viewing options to human-reviewed channels, YouTube today is adding another feature that will give parents the ability to explicitly whitelist every channel or video they want to be available to their children through the app.

Additionally, YouTube Kids is launching an updated experience to serve the needs of a slightly older demographic: tween viewers ages 8 through 12. This mode adds new content, like popular music and gaming videos.

The company had promised in April these changes were in the works, but didn’t note when they’d be going live.

With the manual whitelisting feature, parents can visit the app’s Settings, go to their child’s profile, and toggle on an “Approved Content Only” option. They can then handpick the videos they want their kids to have access to watch through the YouTube Kids app.

Parents can opt to add any video, channel, or collection of channels they like by tapping the “+” button, or they can search for a specific creator or video through this interface.

Once this mode is enabled, kids will no longer be able to search for content on their own.

While this is a lot of manual labor on parents’ part, it does serve the needs of those with very young children who aren’t comfortable with YouTube Kids’ newer “human-reviewed channels” filtering option, as mistakes could still slip through.

A “human-reviewed” channel means that a YouTube moderator has watched several videos on the channel, to determine if the content is generally appropriate and kid-friendly, but it doesn’t mean every single video that is later added to the channel will be human-reviewed.

Instead, future uploads to the channel will only go through YouTube’s algorithmic layers of security, the company has said.

Unfortunately, while there is now a whitelisting option, there’s still no option to blacklist videos or channels to block them from the app.

That’s a problem because there are videos that are perfectly “kid-safe” that parents just want to limit for other reasons. “How to make slime” videos come to mind – something that parents everywhere likely want to block at scale after having their houses destroyed by the goo. (Thanks YouTube. Thanks Katrina Garcia.)

YouTube Kids expands to tweens

The other new feature now arriving will update YouTube Kids for an older audience who’s beginning to outgrow the preschool-ish look-and-feel of the app, and the way it sometimes pushes content that’s “for babies,” as my 8-year old would put it.

Instead, parents will be able to turn on the “Older” content level setting that opens up YouTube Kids to include less restricted content for kids ages 8 to 12.

According to the company, this includes music and gaming videos – which is basically something like 90% of kids’ YouTube watching at this age. (Not an official stat. Just what it feels like over here.)

The “Younger” option will continue to feature things like sing-alongs and other age-appropriate educational videos, but YouTube Kids’ “Older” mode will let kids watch different kinds of videos, like music videos, gaming video, shows, nature and wildlife videos, and more.

YouTube stresses to parents that its ability to filter content isn’t perfect – inappropriate content could still slip through. It needs parents to participate by blocking and flagging videos, as that comes up.

It’s best if kids continue to watch YouTube while in parents’ presence, of course, and without headphones, or on the big screen in the living room where you can moderate kids’ viewing yourself.

But there are times when you need to use YouTube as the babysitter or a distraction so you can get things done. The new whitelisting option could help parents feel more comfortable letting their kids loose on the app.

Meanwhile, older kids will appreciate the expanded freedom. (And you won’t be constantly begged for your own phone where “regular YouTube” is installed, as a result.)

YouTube says the parental controls are rolling today globally on Android and coming soon to iOS. The “Older” option is rolling out now in the U.S. and will expand globally in the future.

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.

Messenger Kids rolls out passphrases so kids can initiate friend requests themselves

Facebook is making it easier for kids to add their friends on its under-13 chat app, Messenger Kids. Starting today, the company is rolling out a new feature that will allow kids to request parents’ approval of new contacts. To use the feature, parents will turn on a setting that creates a four-word passphrase that’s used generate these contact requests, the company says.

Parents can opt to use this feature, which is not on by default.

Once enabled, Facebook will randomly generate a four-word phrase that’s uniquely assigned to each child. When the child wants to add a friend to their app’s contacts list in the future, they will show this phrase to the friend to enter in their own app.

Both parents will then receive a contact request from their child – and both have to approve the request before the kids can start chatting. In other words, this doesn’t represent a loosening of the rules around parental approvals – all contact requests still require parents’ explicit attention and confirmation, as before.

However, it does make it easier for kids to friend one another when their parents aren’t Facebook friends themselves. That’s been an issue with the app for some time, and one Facebook first started to address in May when it made a change that finally no longer required parents to be friends, too.

While most parents will at least want to know who their child is texting with, there are plenty of times when parents are friendly with someone on a more casual basis – like through the child’s school or their extracurricular activities. But just because two people are neighbors or fellow soccer moms and dads, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re also Facebook friends.

The change introduced in May allowed parents to do a search for the child’s friend’s parents, then invite them to the app so the kids could connect. But this still required parents to take the initial steps (at the urging of the child, of course). It was also confusing at times, we found when we tried it for ourselves – some parents we connected with couldn’t figure out how the approval process worked, for example.

That being said, it may have helped to give the app’s install base a big boost, along with its expansion outside the U.S. According to data from Sensor Tower, Messenger Kids saw a sizable increase in installs in the beginning of early June and it has just now passed 1.4 million downloads across both iOS and Android. In addition, its daily downloads are around 3x what they were at the end of May.

The passphrase solution will make things a bit easier on parents, because contact requests will be initiated by the kids. Parents will only have to tap a big “Approve” button to confirm the request (or deny it, if the request is inappropriate for some reason.)

The four-word passphrase will only be visible to the child in the Messenger Kids app, and to the parent in their Parent’s Portal.

It’s worth noting that Facebook opted for a passphrase instead of a scannable QR code, as is common in other messaging apps including Facebook Messenger, Snapchat and Twitter, for instance. Facebook says this is so kids can exchange the passphrase without the device being present.

Messenger Kids is a controversial app, but its adoption is growing, the data indicates. Parents have been starved for an app like this – one allowing for conversation monitoring (you just install your own copy) and contact approvals. Whether this will actually indoctrinate a new generation of Facebook or Messenger users is more questionable. It’s likely that when kids outgrow Messenger Kids, they’ll still be switching over to Facebook’s Instagram and Snapchat instead.

The passphrase feature is rolling out starting today on the Messenger Kids mobile app.

Subscription startup Kidbox launches its own clothing lines

Kidbox, a subscription clothing box similar to Stitch Fix – but aimed at parents who dislike kids’ clothes shopping (aka all of us) – is now launching its own private label kids’ brands. At launch, the three clothing brands – Miki B., Kid’s Club, and Baby Basics – will join the startup’s over 130 existing brand partners, such as Adidas, DKNY, 7 for All Mankind, Puma, Jessica Simpson, Reebok, Diesel and others.

The company had said earlier this year that it would soon be branching out into its own brands with the arrival of its fall 2018 back-to-school box.

Having sent out its first box of clothing during the back-to-school shopping season in 2016, Kidbox now has two years of data under its belt to inform its designers what kids clothing is selling. Its boxes, similar to Stitch Fix, are put together after parents fill out a profile. The offer their kids’ sizing information, age, and what sort of styles, colors and patterns, they like and hate. Kidbox then preps a box accordingly, and anything the child doesn’t want – or mom or dad don’t want to buy, that is – can be sent back.

However, Kidbox heavily incentives its customers to keep the whole box – it’s around half a dozen items for under $100, which is reasonable. In fact, it can cost more to return items, as you then pay the price on the tag instead of receiving the whole-box discount.

With its new private labels, Kidbox aims to grow its margins further.

“We believe we’ve identified a void in the children’s apparel marketplace,” Kidbox CEO Miki Berardelli told TechCrunch this spring, when referencing its plans to sell its own clothing. “The style sensibility of our exclusive brands will all have a unique personality, and a unique voice that’s akin to how our customers describe themselves. It’s all really based on customer feedback. Our customers tell us what they would love more of; and our merchandising team understands what they would like to be able to procure more of, in terms of rounding out our assortment,” she said.

The company at the time was fresh on the heels of a $15.3 million Series B focused on scaling the business, which included bringing the new lines to its customers.

Kidbox’s brands will focus on the four main personality types of Kidbox shoppers, the company now explains. Miki B. represent a sort of “city cool” aesthetic, while Kid’s Club will encompass sporty athletic, modern casual, and classic preppy styles. Baby Basics, of course, includes baby items.

The lines were created by Kidbox’s own design team, which includes designers from brands like Tory Burch, Burberry, Bonobos, and J.Crew. The team focused on every aspect – like  fabric, color, pattern, and cut. They decided on using 100 percent cotton jersey, so the clothes will hold up and become wardrobe staples.

Each Kidbox shipment will now feature at least one of its own brands, the company says.

In addition to the new brands, Kidbox also teamed up with French Toast on a $68 uniform box for boys and girls that caters to kids whose schools enforce dress codes.

Kidbox today competes with other kids clothing subscription boxes like Rockets of Awesome, Kidpik, Mac & Mia, fabKids, and others. As a parent and customer of a couple of these, what I like about Kidbox is the wearability its items, which tend to be more practical choices, and its affordability. My child likes that the Kidbox often comes with a small surprise – and always includes crayons and stickers, too.

The company declines to share subscriber numbers, but touts 1.2+ million members of its “community” which encompasses social media fans, email subscribers, and paying customers.

The New York-based startup has $28 million to date from Canvas Ventures, Firstime Ventures, HDS Capital, plus strategic partners Fred Langhammer, former CEO of The Estée Lauder Companies Inc., and The Gindi Family, owners of Century 21 department stores.

Hands on with the Echo Dots Kids Edition

Earlier this year, Amazon introduced an Echo Dot for kids, with its $80 Echo Dot Kids Edition device, which comes in your choice of a red, blue, or green protective case. The idea is to market a version of Amazon’s existing Dot hardware to families by bundling it with an existing subscription service, and by throwing in a few extra features – like having Alexa encourage kids to say “please” when making their demands, for example.

The device makes sense in a couple of scenarios – for helicopter parents who want to fully lock down an Echo device before putting it in a kid’s room, and for those who were in the market for a FreeTime Unlimited subscription anyway.

I’ve been testing out an Echo Dot Kids Edition, and ran into some challenges which I thought I’d share. This is not a hardware review – I’m sure you can find those elsewhere. 

Music Filtering

As a parent of an 8-year old myself, I’ve realized it’s too difficult to keep her from ever hearing bad words – especially in music, TV and movies – so I’ve just explained to her that while she will sometimes hear those words, that doesn’t mean it’s okay to say them. (We have a similar rule about art – sometimes people will be nude in paintings, but that doesn’t mean it’s okay to walk around naked all the time.)

Surprisingly, I’ve been able to establish a level of shame around adult and inappropriate content to the point that she will confess to me when she hears it on places like YouTube. She will even turn it off without my instruction! I have a good kid, I guess.

But I understand some parents will only want kids to access the sanitized version of songs – especially if their children are still in the preschool years, or have a tendency to seek out explicit content because they’re little monsters.

Amazon FreeTime would be a good option in that case, but there are some caveats.

For starters, if you plan on using the explicit language filter on songs the Echo Dot plays, then you’re stuck with Amazon Music. While the Echo Dot itself can play music from a variety of services, including on-demand offerings from Pandora and Spotify, you can’t use these services when the explicit filter is enabled as “music services that do not support this filter will be blocked,” Amazon explains.

We’re a Spotify household, so that means my child’s favorite bedtime music playlist became unavailable when we swapped out her existing Echo Dot for the Kids Edition which had the explicit filter enabled.

Above: Parent Dashboard? Where? Maybe a link would help?

You can disable the explicit filter from the Parent Dashboard, but this option is inconveniently available just via the web. When you dig around in the Alexa app – which is where you’d think these controls would be found, there’s only a FreeTime On/Off toggle switch and instructions to “Go to the Parent Dashboard to see activity, manage time limits, and add content.”

It’s not even hyperlinked!

You have to just know the dashboard’s URL is parents.amazon.com. (And not www.parents.amazon.com, by the way. That doesn’t work.)

Then to actually disable the filter, it’s several more steps.

You’ll click the gear icon next to the child’s name, click on “Echo Dot Kids Edition” under “Alexa Settings,” then click “Manage Music.” Here, you can turn the switch on or off.

If you don’t have a subscription music service, the Echo Dot Kids Edition also ships with access to ad-free kid-safe stations on iHeartRadio Family.

Whitelisting Alexa skills…well, some skills!

Another issue with the way FreeTime works with Alexa, is that it’s not clear that nearly everything your child accesses on the device has to be whitelisted.

This leads to a confusing first-time user workflow.

Likely, you’ll start by browsing in the Alexa app’s Skills section or the Skills Store on the web to find some appropriate kid-friendly skills for your child to try. For example, I found and enabled a skill called “Math Facts – Math Practice for Kids.”

But when I instructed “Alexa, open Math Facts,” she responded, “I can’t do that.”

She didn’t say why.

As I hadn’t used FreeTime in quite a while, it didn’t occur to me that each Alexa skill would have to be toggled on – just like the third-party apps, videos, books and audiobooks the child has access to that didn’t ship with FreeTime Unlimited itself.

Instead, I mistakenly assumed that skills from the “Kids” section of the Skills store would just work.

Again, you’ll have to know to go to parents.amazon.com to toggle things on.

And again, the process for doing so is too many clicks deep in the user interface to be immediately obvious to newcomers. (You click the gear by the kid’s name, then “Add Content” – not “Echo Dot Kids Edition” as you might think! Then, on the “Add Content” screen, click over to the “Alexa Skills” tab and toggle on the skills you want the child to use.)

The issue with this system is that it prevents Echo Dot Kids Edition users – kids and adults alike – from discovering and enabling skills by voice. And it adds an unnecessary step by forcing parents to toggle skills on.

After all, if the parents are the ones signing in when visiting the Skills store in-app or on the web, that means they’re the ones choosing to enable the Skills, too.

And if they’re enabling a skill from Kids section, one would assume it’s for their kids to use on their device!

The problem, largely, is that FreeTime isn’t really integrated with the Alexa app. All of this – from explicit content filters to whitelisting skills to turning on or off calling, messaging and drop-ins – should be managed from within the Alexa app, not from a separate website.

Amazon obviously did minimal integration work in order to sell parents a pricier Echo Dot.

To make matters more confusing is the fact that Amazon has partnered with some kids skill publishers, similar to how it partnered with other content providers for apps and movies. That means there’s a list of skills that don’t appear in your Parent Dashboard that also don’t require whitelisting.

This includes: 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.

But it’s confusing that you can immediately use these skills, and not others clearly meant for kids. You end up feeling like you did something wrong when some skills don’t work, before you figure out this whole whitelisting system.

In addition, what’s also not clear is that these “Premium” skills come with the FreeTime subscription – most are not available in the Skills store. If your FreeTime subscription expires, it seems you’ll lose access to these, as well.

Overall, the FreeTime experience for Echo feels disjointed, and there’s a steep learning curve for new users.

Your FreeTime Unlimited 1-year Subscription

It’s also frustrating that there’s no information on the FreeTime Parents dashboard about the nature of your subscription. You can’t confirm that you’re currently subscribed to the paid product known as FreeTime Unlimited. You can’t see when that subscription expires, or when your first free year is up. It’s unclear if you’ll just be charged, or when that will take place. And there’s no toggle to turn the subscription off if you decide you no longer need it.

Instead, you can only “modify” which credit card you use with Amazon’s 1-click. Seriously. That’s it.

I still don’t know where to turn this subscription off – I guess the option to disable it doesn’t even appear until your free year is up? (Even clicking on “FreeTime Unlimited” from Amazon.com’s subscription management page routes you back to this useless Parent dashboard page for managing your 1-Click settings.)

So, ask me in a year, maybe?

That said, if you are in the market for both a FreeTime Unlimited subscription and an Echo Dot, you may as well buy the Kids Edition.

FreeTime Unlimited works on Fire tablets, Android devices, Kindle, and as of this month, iOS devices, providing access to over 15,000 kid-safe apps, games, videos, books and educational content. On Amazon devices, parents can also set screen time limits and educational goals.

The service by itself is $2.99 per month for Prime members (for one profile) or $4.99 per month for non-members. It’s more if you buy the Family subscription. Meanwhile, the regular 2nd gen Echo Dot is currently $49.99. So you’re basically looking at $50 + $36/year for FreeTime Unlimited if you bought these things separately as a Prime member.

The Echo Dot Kids Edition comes with one year of FreeTime Unlimited and is $79.99. So you’re saving a tiny bit there. Plus, you can always turn FreeTime off, if you’d rather just use the Echo Dot as a regular Echo Dot – while still getting a free year of FreeTime for another device, like the kid’s iPad.

Still, watch out because Echo Dot often goes on sale – and probably will be on sale again for Prime Day this summer. Depending on the price cut it gets, it may not be worth it to buy the bundle.

Other Perks

There are other perks that Amazon tries to use to sell the Echo Dot Kids Edition to families, but the most notable is “Magic Word.”

This feature turns on when FreeTime is enabled, and thanks kids for saying “please” when they speak to Alexa. Yes, that seems like a small thing but it was something that a lot of parents were upset about. They thought kids were learning bad manners by barking commands at Alexa.

I don’t know about that. My kid seems to understand that we say “please” and “thank you” to people, but Alexa doesn’t get her feelings hurt by being told to “play Taylor Swift.” But to each their own!

This feature will thrill some parents, I’m sure.

Parents can also use FreeTime to pause the device or configure a bedtime so kids don’t stay up talking to Alexa, but honestly, LET ‘EM.

It’s far better than when they stall bedtime by badgering you for that extra glass of water, one more blanket, turn on that light, now crack the door…a little more…a little less…Honestly, escaping the kid’s room at bedtime is an art form.

If Alexa can keep them busy and less afraid of the dark, I’m calling it a win.

FreeTime with the Echo Dot Kids Edition also lets you set up “Character Alarms” – meaning, kids can configure Alexa to wake them up with an alarm click featuring characters from brands like Disney and Nickelodeon.

This is hilarious.

Because if you have a kid in the preschool to tween age range who actually require an alarm clock to wake up in the morning instead of getting up at the crack of dawn (or maybe one who has gone through years of training so they DON’T ALSO WAKE YOU UP AT THE CRACK OF DAWN OH MY GOD) – then, I guess, um, enjoy character alarms?

I’m sorry, let me stop laughing….Hold on.

I’m sure somebody needs this.

Sorry for laughing. But please explain how you’ve taught your children to sleep in? Do they go to bed at a decent hour too? No seriously, email me. I have no idea.

The Echo Dot Kids Edition can also work as a household intercom, but so do regular Echo devices.

You can turn off voice purchasing on the Kids Edition, but you can do that on regular devices, too (despite what Amazon’s comparison chart says.)

Plus, kids can now control smart home devices with the Echo Dot Kids Edition – a feature that shamefully wasn’t available at launch, but is now.

And that cute protective case? Well, a regular Echo Dot is actually pretty sturdy. We’ve dropped ours probably a dozen times from dresser to floor (uncarpeted!) with no issues.

I like how Amazon tries to sell the case, though:


I guess if your kid plans to do CHEMISTRY EXPERIMENTS by the Echo Dot, you may need this.

In reality, the case is just cute – and can help the Echo better match the kid’s room.

The Echo Kids Edition, overall, is not a must-have device. You’ll have more flexibility with a regular Echo and a little old-school parenting.