This week two democratic senators are calling on federal regulators to investigate if children’s apps are tracking their data.
Senators Edward Markey of Massachusetts and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut sent a letter on Wednesday to the Federal Trade Commission, writing they are concerned that numerous apps are potentially violating the law.
Without explicit parental consent, it is illegal to collect data on children under the age of 13 according to the Children Online Privacy Protection Act, which went into effect in 2000.
This comes after last month when the New Mexico Attorney Generalsued the maker of app Fun Kid Racing, as well as the online ad businesses run by Google, Twitter and three other companies.
The suit accused the companies of violating the law, and that Google misled parents by allowing apps to remain in its Google Play store children’s section after it was notified by researchers that thousands of apps may be tracking young children.
“The problem is this – we don’t know where the onus lies,” New York Times reporter Edmund Lee told CNBC’s “On the Money” in an interview.
Lee says the law isn’t clear on whether it should be the platform such as Google or Apple to make sure the apps in their stores are complying with the law, whether it’s up to the game developer or if it should be up to the third party data firm tracking the data.
“So there’s a whole system in place that everyone keeps passing the buck and there’s no case law yet,” says Lee. “Even the legislation – it’s not entirely clear who is ultimately responsible.”
So what should a parent do if they are concerned their child is being tracked?
Lee says, “You should just assume it’s going to happen you should assume you’re going to be tracked.”
“Right now it’s the ‘Wild West’ there are very few protections, few sort of places of enforcement around it, and that’s why it’s hard as a parent and as a kid to navigate,” he added.
However, Lee notes most of these are harmless games, and the tracking data is used for advertising purposes, which is how these companies make money.
For parents worried about their child’s privacy – Lee says he tells his own daughter to keep her communication online only with people she knows.
“You’re not going to be able to look and know every single piece of data that’s being floated out there until there’s legislation and case law in place. But in the meantime make sure you know who your kid is talking to and it shouldn’t be strangers and it shouldn’t be someone they just met online.”
Twitter has long had a strange disdain for third-party Twitter apps, but it’s allowed many of them to pass under the radar for the last several years. That’s starting to change this summer, when Twitter will revoke a key piece of access that developers currently have to the service, replacing it with a new access system that limits what they can do. The changes aren’t going to make third-party Twitter clients useless, but they are going to make the apps somewhat worse.
The changes, which go into effect August 16th, do two main things: first, they prevent new tweets from streaming into an app in real time; and second, they prevent and delay some push notifications. Neither of these are going to break Twitter apps completely, but they could be very annoying depending on how and where you use it.
The first change means the Twitter timeline has to be manually refreshed. That’s not necessarily a huge deal on mobile, as you’re probably used to pulling to refresh the timeline anyway. Luke Klinker, the developer behind the Android Twitter client Talon, said that only 2 to 3 percent of his users ever turned on the auto-refresh feature, or what’s known as streaming to Twitter client makers, because it was such a drain on battery. Craig Hockenberry, a senior engineer at Iconfactory, which makes Twitterrific, said it would be a bigger problem in some scenarios, like when you’re watching an event on TV. “Pulling to refresh in those cases works, but is awkward and feels ‘slow,’” he writes in an email to The Verge.
On the desktop, the lack of streaming could be a bigger issue. Twitter apps can still request that your timeline be refreshed, but they can only do it so often. If you’re the kind of person who absolutely needs to see every tweet the second it’s tweeted, that’ll be a problem.
But it might still be fine for some users. Tapbots co-founder Paul Haddad, who’s behind the Mac and iOS app Tweetbot, says that his apps are already set up to automatically check Twitter for updates “every so often” when a user has streaming disabled. “As an anecdote, we’ve had users running without streaming for months for one reason or another and not even notice,” he writes in an email to The Verge.
Push notifications could be more of a problem. On mobile, it sounds like they’re either going to vanish or be severely limited. Klinker has never had access to the developer tools that allow for push notifications, so the Talon app has never supported them. He has been able to create workarounds, like having the app occasionally request updates in the background, but it can’t receive all types of notification and, again, it’s a drain on battery.
That’s an annoying change, especially since the type of people who download third-party Twitter apps are probably the type of people who like to stay engaged on Twitter. It could also be a major issue for Twitterrific, which is available for free on iOS but charges $3 for access to notifications. That in-app purchase is Twitterrific’s “primary revenue stream,” according to Sean Heber, an engineer at Iconfactory. The feature will essentially be broken, or at least partially broken, once Twitter enacts these changes. “So this is a big problem,” he wrote in a tweet.
On the desktop, notifications will be limited, but not as dramatically. Haddad says that like and retweet notifications will stop working on Tweetbot for Mac, and other notifications will be delayed by one to two minutes.
There may be other, unexpected issues too. Heber said it’s still unknown if direct messages will work on mobile. Haddad said he expects issues on mobile to primarily revolve around push notifications, but that he wasn’t ready to detail the exact impact yet.
Twitter will offer developers a way to buy access to a new API that will enable all the old, real-time features. But the service appears to be extremely limiting and prohibitively expensive for consumer app developers. I suspect it’s likely meant for companies doing data analysis or offering financial services; something that can be sold for much more money. Twitter’s pricing comes out to $11.60 per user per month, and that’s only if an app doesn’t go above 250 users. Any more than that and they have to negotiate a deal for greater access. And given Twitter’s well-known disinterest in third-party Twitter apps, it’s unlikely this would be an option for developers.
While developers aren’t exactly thrilled with the way Twitter’s changes have turned out, it sounds like they aren’t too shaken either. “We’d obviously prefer to continue to offer things in as real-time a manner as possible, but not being able to do that is not the end of the world,” Haddad said.
Klinker said most users of Talon and other recent Android Twitter apps won’t notice any changes, since they never had access to push notifications anyway. They also aren’t likely to get some new Twitter features, he said, like polls. “My users won’t see any changes, but Twitter has restricted what I hoped to be possible for the future,” he wrote. Klinker said he was excited for the API changes because it could have finally granted his app access to notifications, but Twitter’s pricing makes it “clear that push notifications for third-party apps is the last thing Twitter wants these APIs used for, which is disappointing.”
Twitterrific for iOS should “mostly keep working without push, in theory,” wrote Heber. He said Iconfactory will “still expect to keep the app running with reduced functionality for as long as we can.”
“One thing I’m concerned that Twitter doesn’t understand: a lot of the folks who use our apps are longtime users who are highly engaged with the service,” Hockenberry said. “These folks aren’t served well by the official client and are likely to find a different outlet for their social media needs.”
In a New York Times interview earlier this month, Deadpool actor Ryan Reynolds revealed he suffers from anxiety.
“I have anxiety, I’ve always had anxiety,” he said. “Both in the lighthearted ‘I’m anxious about this’ kind of thing, and I’ve been to the depths of the darker end of the spectrum, which is not fun.”
When asked how he manages his condition on stressful press tours, Reynolds said he is one of the over 15 million people who have downloaded guided meditation app, Headspace.
Apps designed to improve mental wellbeing have skyrocketed in popularity over the past five years. Most of these focus on managing stress and anxiety, in particular overcoming panic attacks.
However there have been concerns raised about the quality of many of the supposed mental health apps currently available for download.
Last year, the American Psychiatric Association assessed more than 10,000 depression and anxiety related self-help apps available for download, finding fewer than 1 per cent had been professionally evaluated.
Evidence for meditation programs having a moderately positive effect on psychological stress exists, although research is limited.
Last year, the federal government announced $2.18 million in funding for the Black Dog Institute to conduct a five-year trial of mental health apps involving 20,000 teenagers, assessing whether the technology can – in their words – “inoculate” adolescents from developing depression after a year of use.
However, the number of apps on the market which administer guided meditation in a potentially clinically useful way appears to be small.
A 2015 Queensland University of Technology evaluation of mindfulness-based iPhone apps, assessed the 560 unique apps found when searching for “mindfulness” in Apple and Google’s respective application stores, finding only 23 did more than simply remind a person to meditate, time their meditation, or provide support beyond a non-interactive guided meditation track. Of those 23, Headspace was the study’s top-scoring app.
Dr Kym Jenkins, president of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, says problems can arise if people use smartphone apps as a substitute for gaining face-to-face mental health care.
“Mindfulness mediation apps can be useful for some people, but for others, when unwell, using these apps or even engaging in mediation its self can be quite difficult,” she says.
“Apps of this kind are not a substitute for professional health care. If you are concerned over your mental health then you should seek help from your GP. A GP can help you work out what is going on, and refer you on for further treatment by a psychiatrist or psychologist.”
Some mental health professionals have started to integrate the apps into their therapy programs. Melbourne clinical psychologist Dr Melissa Keogh recommends her clients complete 10 minutes of mindfulness meditation each day, and encourages them to use the Australian-made app, Smiling Mind.
Similar to Headspace, Smiling Mind is a free mindfulness meditation app. Developed by a team of psychologists, and offering meditation programs for children, teenagers and adults, it has been downloaded over 2.6 million times.
(The 2015 QUT study found Smiling Mind to be the second-best app for mindfulness meditation, after Headspace.)
For Dr Keogh, apps do not replace sessions, but provide her clients with a more structured way to do their prescribed daily meditation. She says her clients report a reduction in stress and anxiety symptoms when using the app.
“Before the advent of the iPhone and apps I used to teach deep breathing exercises and progressive muscle relaxation via the reading of a script in-session, to help clients with stress and anxiety,” she says.
“While clients enjoyed and benefited from these exercises, they often struggled to stay the course outside of [their] session because the mind does have a natural tendency to wander… the apps we have now are great in this way as clients are guided the entire way through their meditation, although that said, it does still require some level of discipline and dedication to keep up the practice.”