Compulsory apps on school tablet devices: Friend or foe?

Monique Pisaniello

Monique Pisaniello, sixth year medical student from the University of Adelaide.

Monique Pisaniello
Sixth year Medical Student from the University of Adelaide, supervised by Prof Jon Jureidini

After a year of COVID, children have been engaging with digital tablets, apps and other digitalized resources more than ever, often as required by their schools. Before COVID, 93% of UK children aged 8-11 were found to go online in any given week in a study by their communication regulator, Ofcom.  Meanwhile, a US study found 95% of a sample of popular ‘under 5 apps’ had advertisements and in an Australian study, 82% of mental health apps accessed data from the users of that app. It might be expected that online learning will remain high after the pandemic passes, so it is timely we assess the use of such tools, particularly regarding child safety, and the benefits and cost of apps.

Read more in these Australian and UK reports.

Our study investigated the use and potential harms of children’s apps.  We analysed 47 apps that were deemed ‘compulsory’ for download by one primary school in an Australian capital city. Only 18 apps (38%) fitted into a typical primary school subject category, (e.g., Mathletics Student), and the others mostly had operational utility, (e.g., word processing, Microsoft Word) or were expected to enhance digital-technology skills (e.g., Adobe Photoshop). While there is evidence to suggest educational apps can be beneficial for children’s learning, their effective use might require additional teaching training. Often missing from the compulsory list, as in our study, are educational apps such as Minecraft that encourage creative engagement and problem-solving.

Furthermore, there are studies that suggest that the use of tablets can compromise or encourage development of hand and fine motor skills, and this depends very much on the app under review. These mixed messages make it complicated for parents and educators to make decisions about the appropriate kinds of apps for their children. Read more.

Of greater concern to parents and educators are the potential risks associated with data sharing, advertising, and content that apps can generate.

Data sharing

User data can include demographic information and analytics to aid targeted advertising. It is frequently unclear what data each app takes. While most apps studied, 42 (89%), provided access to a privacy policy, they were long (average word count 3160) and often difficult to understand. Given the school suggested the apps, it is unlikely that parents would read such information. A total of 93% of the apps with privacy policies acknowledged collecting user data and 55% (23 of them share such data with third parties. Only 16 apps collected data only necessary for the apps’ use, e.g., students’ names and scores for use of their teachers (Socrative Student and Seesaw). Fortunately, 33 (77%) of the apps discussed how such information is stored, using databases and server logs with unique identifiers.  No apps’ privacy policy referenced the Australian Government guidelines for the use and collection of personal information, the Australian Privacy Principles.


When using the suggested educational apps for even just a few minutes, usage revealed exposure to many ads, including a gambling app (‘Infinity Slots-Best Casino Slots’). Only 5 apps (11%) specified in their privacy policy that they did not carry advertisements. Additionally, emails often had to be provided in order to use an app and at least 7 (17%) of the apps generated frequent emails, often promoting paid versions of the free app downloaded.

There is much work to be done to support children to monitor what they are exposed to when they use digital apps. A strong parent and educator agenda goes beyond supervising children’s app use to more engagement with children in their app use. This approach is particularly important when schools provide lists of approved school apps. Children are being exposed to advertising with a UK study finding that only 23% of children ages 8-11 years-old could identify sponsored links that appeared on Google as advertising.

Harms to self-esteem

Some of the apps downloaded, including Adobe Photoshop and Pic Collage Kids, involved editing photos and posting them online for others to view. These apps that encourage the posting of images can raise questions about a child’s (or adult’s) self-image and confidence. Links between social media use and low self-esteem (as well as anxiety, depression and poor sleep) require further investigation. Some apps, including the popular Mathletics, provide feedback online, which may affect students’ learning as the feedback is not moderated through an educator or parent who could gauge the impact on that particular child. Should schools be exacerbating already pervasive app use by mandating the download of particular apps?

While the majority of 47 apps listed for download on iPads of Years 3-5 students at one Australian primary school had potential educational or operational utility use, significant concerns were identified about: the collection of user data that is commonly shared with third parties and used for targeted advertising; exposure to advertising; and unintended impact on well-being and learning. On the other hand, some apps could be educationally or socially beneficial and there are resources that help identify these.  

Read More from Early childhood Australia and Common sense media.

To make the best out of the ever-evolving technology toolkit, government policy regarding app development and privacy policy should be strengthened, and educators should be trained in how to utilise the best educational apps. Until this happens, caution should surround the apps and devices used by our children.

Other references

Tagged in Critical and ethical mental health