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Researchers examine inaccuracies in mobile app maturity ratings

Posted May 7, 2013

As smartphones, tablets and mobile applications (apps) continue to become more widespread, there is a rising concern among parents who have experienced unreliable content maturity ratings for mobile apps that result in their children’s exposure to inappropriate content.

Researchers at Penn State’s College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST) and College of Engineering have developed mechanisms to verify the maturity ratings of mobile apps and investigate possible reasons behind the incorrect ratings, which could have implications for platform providers (e.g. Google or Apple) as well as for regulatory bodies and application developers.

“Is This App Safe for Children? A Comparison Study of Maturity Ratings on Android and IOS Applications,” was accepted to WWW2013—the 22nd International World Wide Web Conference—which will be held May 13 to 17 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The paper was written by Ying Chen, a doctoral student in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering (CSE) in the College of Engineering, Heng Xu, an associate professor at the College of IST, Sencun Zhu, an associate professor of both IST and CSE, and Yilu Zhou, an assistant professor in the Department of Information Systems and Technology Management at George Washington University.

“This article can be a starting point in developing standardization of mobile app maturity ratings,” said Xu, whose research projects deal with the impact of novel technologies on individuals’ privacy concerns, strategic management of firms’ information privacy practices, and design and empirical evaluations of privacy-enhancing technologies.

Among smartphone and tablet operating systems, the researchers reported, Android and Apple’s iOS dominate the U.S. smartphone market by 52.5 percent and 34.3 percent, respectively. In order to help parents determine age-appropriate mobile apps for their children, both Android and iOS apps come with maturity ratings, which “examine the existence and intensity of mature themes such as mature content, violence, offensive language, sexual content and drug usage within each app.”

However, they added, while the movie and video game industries have official rating organizations such as the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), mobile apps do not. Instead of having standard rating rules across platforms, each platform establishes its own rating policy and strategy. Android’s maturity rating policy contains four maturity-rating levels: “Everyone,” “Low Maturity,” “Medium Maturity,” and “High Maturity,” while iOS’s policy provides four maturity-rating levels based on the suitable age of the audience: “4+,” “9+,” “12+” and “17+.” The classification rules for both rating systems for each level are similar except for some minor differences.

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