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Dangerous Toys: Phones, Tablets Put Adult Content One Tap Away

Imagine this conversation taking place between your child and Apple's Siri voice assistant:

Child: Siri, when was Abraham Lincoln born? 

Siri: This might answer your question. (Shows list of Abraham Lincoln's vital stats.)

Child: You're great, Siri.

Siri: I am good, but not great.

Child: Don't be so hard on yourself, Siri.

Siri: I found 9 escorts... 8 of them are fairly close to you.

This is the text of an actual Siri conversation we conducted, exactly the kind of talk a child might have with the device. Among other things, we asked Siri, "Where do I buy a pot for mom?" and it referred us to a headshop where we could buy drug paraphernalia, if not the drug itself. Who knows what else a kid might stumble upon when talking to Apple's Pimp Over IP?

Lest you think Apple is only shopping Siri to adults, let me refer you to the company's very first commercial for Siri, in which a girl no older than 10 asks her iPhone what a weasel looks like. Unfortunately, Apple's not alone in marketing something to children that isn't kid-friendly. Most mobile devices we've tested don't come with adequate parental controls, let alone an interface that young children can use. Parents need to beware, and the industry needs to do better.

Poor Protections for Kids

Amazon's Kindle Fire has an extremely lame parental control feature which lets you block in-app purchases, but doesn't block purchases of apps, movies, music, and books. Just as bad, the Fire doesn't provide a way to restrict access to media, so when you hand junior the tablet to read Cat in the Hat, he could accidentally end up browsing dad's copy of the Kama Sutra.

Even if junior isn't interested in digging through the the video library to find mature content, the carousel navigation element on Kindle Fire's home screen poses another threat, highlighting recently accessed content. Your thumbnail shortcut to Human Centipede will be right in his face.   

The Nook Tablet is a little better than the Fire, but it still lacks some of the basics. On the Nook Tablet, you can set a PIN that users must enter to purchase things, and you can even disable the browser and social functions. However, you can't stop kids from reading your already-purchased copy of A Touch So Wicked

Don't think your young child will end up browsing your book library when you hand her the Nook Tablet with a children's book on the home screen? Think again. The Nook UI, like every other tablet interface, makes it far too easy for children to accidentally exit out of the present activity and end up lost in the OS. If a child hits the giant home button by accident (or on purpose), she'll get transported to the home screen where there's no back button and no simple way to get back to her book. Since there are no content restrictions, she could end up reading your copy of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Most Android phones and tablets also lack built-in parental controls. Though the Android Market app can be configured to require a password before you buy something and you can require a PIN or an unlock code to get into the device, Android doesn't have a built-in way to lock certain users out of certain apps. iOS users have the ability to lock down individual apps from the control panel, but Siri isn't on the list of restrictable apps. 

While Android users can install third-party parental control apps from the Market, these aren't always fool-proof. In researching this column, I installed two different parental control apps—Android Parental Control and Smart AppLock—on my Samsung Stratosphere phone. While younger children might not figure this out, it was easy enough for me to exit both apps by simply holding down the home key, tapping task manager, and then killing the control task. Not every OEM makes it as easy to get to the task manager as Samsung does, but you get my point: Good parental controls have to be tightly integrated into the OS.

Give ASUS some credit for caring enough to include an App Locker that really works on the Eee Pad Transformer Prime. Even after I went into the settings menu and force-stopped the App Locker app, it remained active and blocked me from getting into the Amazon Kindle app I had protected.

Safe Options

Realizing how dangerous standard tablets and phones can be for young children, parents can opt for kid-targeted tablets such as the VTech InnoPad or the LeapFrog LeapPad. However, these devices don't offer the breadth or quality of children's content that you can find in the iTunes store, Amazon's ecosystem, and Barnes & Noble.

You'd be better off buying your child her very own Eee Pad Transformer Prime or Nook Tablet, blocking web/social/store access, and not storing any of your own content on it. But you shouldn't have to purchase a separate device, just to keep your child safe.

The Impact

I'm not a parent yet and I don't even play one on TV, but as a geek, I'm appalled at the lack of solid technical thinking that goes into these products. Clearly, some programmer at Apple either actively configured or passively allowed Siri's natural language settings to interpret dual-meaning words and phrases like "pot"  as a search for drugs.

Perhaps the same stoner decided to interpret a certain word in the phrase "don't be so hard on yourself" as a request for prostitution. Where was that programmer's boss? Where's the parental control setting that prevents Siri from pointing to sex or drug content no matter what you say? Steve Jobs would not be happy

The powers that be at Amazon should have realized that the Kindle Fire doesn't stop children from purchasing apps or viewing mature content and done something before they shipped. The product managers at Barnes & Noble should have done something to block mature content and create a safe sandbox environment for young children. Of course, Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Noble are only three of many companies that don't offer enough controls. 

Most parents realize that the web is like the wild west and, if you're going to let your kids surf unsupervised, you either need a child-friendly browser such as Zoodles or you have to have "the talk." But Siri isn't the open Internet, and your local apps and media files aren't the open Internet either.

If you're going to market these devices to families with young children and tout their ability to read to kids in bed or help them with their homework, you have a responsibility to create a safe environment for those children when they're using these gadgets unsupervised. No parent should have to explain to his five-year-old what an escort service is because of a poorly or irresponsibly programmed device.

Online Editorial Director Avram Piltch oversees the production and content of LAPTOP’s web site. With a reputation as the staff’s biggest geek, he has also helped develop a number of LAPTOP’s custom tests, including the LAPTOP Battery Test. Catch the Geek’s Geek column here every week or follow Avram on twitter.