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Apple’s new ‘Family Setup’ aims to make Apple Watch a kid tracker

Apple today announced a new feature that will allow families to stay better connected, even if some members of the family don’t have an iPhone. The company introduced a new feature called Family Setup that allows a parent to pair their iPhone with a child’s Apple Watch in order to stay in touch, receive location notifications, use parental controls, and more.

With Family Setup, parents can set controls, like which contacts the child can communicate with over messages. It also allows family members to receive location alerts so parents will know where the child is and if they have entered or exited a geofenced area. For a child, this could be the school or a basketball practice.

To some extent, that makes Family Setup a competitor to mobile family tracking apps, like Life360, which have become popular tools for families who keep track of one another’s location. Or, as some would argue, apps for the helicopter parenting era of over-monitoring and surveillance.

But Apple’s advantage in this market is that it positions itself as a privacy-focused company. That means parents may feel like they can trust Apple to not collect their family’s location data or sell it to third-parties.

In addition to location tracking, Family Setup lets parents also configure downtime settings, to limit interactions and notifications on the paired watch while the child is focused on schoolwork. Workout integration is also available to keep track of movement.

Meanwhile, children can create their own Memoji with just their Apple Watch that they can use and send in stickers and messages, or use in the new Memoji Watch Face.

Though the feature set is clearly designed for parents with children too young for their own phone, it’s unclear how well it will be embraced by parents, due to the Apple Watch’s higher price point. That’s something Apple attempted to address with the iPhone SE. However, the SE starts at $279 — not as affordable as giving a child a cheap Android device while they head out to run around the neighborhood with friends.

In addition, the new feature may make sense for parents who already have older Apple Watches that they can hand down to kids as they upgrade.

Apple also noted Family Setup may make sense for “older adults” — meaning aging relatives who, due to medical conditions perhaps, may need a bit more active monitoring.

The feature requires requires a cellular model of Apple Watch Series 4 and later and will be available at launch with select carrier partners, including AT&T, T-Mobile and (TechCrunch parent’s parent) Verizon.

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Amazon rebrands FreeTime to Amazon Kids, expands paid catalog for Amazon Kids+

Amazon today announced it will rebrand its kid-friendly services formerly known as Amazon FreeTime and Amazon FreeTime Unlimited to Amazon Kids and Amazon Kids+. In addition to the name change, the services are being redesigned to include a new homescreen experience, Amazon Echo integrations, and will introduce an expanded catalog of music and video content.

To date, the services have offered families a way to use parental controls to limit screen time and children’s access to unapproved content and, for paid subscribers, Amazon offers access to a catalog of over 20,000 books, movies, audiobooks, games and Spanish-language content. This paid tier costs $2.99 per month for a single child, or $6.99 per month for a family, if Prime subscribers. Those prices jump a bit to $4.99 per month and $9.99 per month, if non-Prime customers. Discounts for longer time commitments are also available, as with the $69 annual family plan for Prime customers.

Before, kids would access FreeTime under their own profile on a Fire tablet or, for paid users, through a dedicated app for Android or iOS devices. Going forward, the Amazon Kids+ subscription will continue to work across a range of platforms, including Fire tablets, Fire TV, Kindle, Echo, iOS, Chrome OS, and Android devices.

With the update, the Amazon Kids experience for Fire tablets has been redesigned to feel more like a “grown-up” tablet, through a new profile option.

Here, Amazon Kids will organize its various sections  like “Educational,” “Apps & Games,” “Music,” “Videos,” “Books,” and more under colorful app icons. Below these are rows of image thumbnails offering more thematic groupings and recommendations, like a row of “top brands,” the child’s recently viewed content, or a row of suggested games, for example.

Amazon says this profile is best for children 8 and up, as it serves as more of a transitional step between the younger Kids experience and the jmore traditional tablet layout that parents use. Parents can enable the option under profile settings via the new “Adjust Age Filters and Themes” section in the Amazon Parent Dashboard.

Another new feature brings an Alexa feature to Amazon Kids. If kids have an Alexa device in their home, like an Echo smart speaker, they can use their tablet to broadcast a voice message to everyone in their home through the device’s “announce” feature. Because this feature means Amazon is listening to and processing the child’s voice, it will require parental consent.

Amazon says it’s also expanding its family-friendly content catalog to include hundreds more video titles for kids ages 6 to 12, including gaming playthrough videos plus PG and live-action titles from brands and characters like Angry Birds, LEGO, Transformers, Barbie, Carmen Sandiego, and others.

It has also added music stations from iHeartRadio directly to the Amazon Kids homescreen.

The rebranding is notable as it represents yet another company that’s adopting the “plus” symbol (+) to indicate a service offers premium content available upon subscription. We’ve already seen several streaming services use this same sort of branding, like Disney+, ESPN+, TiVo+, or Apple TV+, for example.

Amazon says the full rebrand will roll out over the next several months, but the new homescreen option and Alexa integration will become available within weeks.

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FTC fines kids’ app developer HyperBeard $150K for use of third-party ad trackers

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) today announced a settlement of $150,000 with HyperBeard, the developer of a collection of children’s mobile games over violations of U.S. Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act Rule (COPPA Rule). The company’s applications had been downloaded more than 50 million times on a worldwide basis to date, according to data from app intelligence firm Sensor Tower.

A complaint filed by the Dept. of Justice on behalf of the FTC alleged that HyperBeard had violated COPPA by allowing third-party ad networks to collect personal information in the form of persistent identifiers to track users of the company’s child-directed apps. And it did so without notifying parents or obtaining verifiable parental consent, as is required. These ad networks then used the identifiers to target ads to children using HyperBeard’s games.

The company’s lineup included games like Axolochi, BunnyBuns, Chichens, Clawbert, Clawberta, KleptoCats, KleptoCats 2, KleptoDogs, MonkeyNauts and NomNoms (not to be confused with toy craze Num Noms).

The FTC determined HyperBeard’s apps were marketed toward children because they used brightly colored, animated characters like cats, dogs, bunnies, chicks, monkeys and other cartoon characters, and were described in child-friendly terms like “super cute” and “silly.” The company also marketed its apps on a kids’ entertainment website, YayOMG, published children’s books and licensed other products, including stuffed animals and block construction sets, based on its app characters.

Unbelievably, the company would post disclaimers to its marketing materials that these apps were not meant for children under 13.

Above: A disclaimer on the NomNoms game website. 

In HyperBeard’s settlement with the FTC, the company has agreed to pay a $150,000 fine and delete the personal information it illegally collected from children under the age of 13. The settlement had originally included a $4 million penalty, but the FTC suspended it over HyperBeard’s inability to pay the full amount. But that larger amount will become due if the company or its CEO, Alexander Kozachenko, are ever found to have misrepresented their finances.

HyperBeard is not the first tech company to be charged with COPPA violations. Two high-profile examples preceding it were YouTube and Musical.ly (TikTok)’s settlements of $170 million and $5.7 million, respectively, both in 2019. By comparison, HyperBeard’s fine seems minimal. However, its case is different from either video platform as the company itself was not handling the data collection — it was permitting ad networks to do so.

The complaint explained that HyperBeard let third-party advertising networks serve ads and collect personal information in the form of persistent identifiers, in order to serve behavioral ads — meaning, targeted ads based on users’ activity over time and across sites.

This requires parental consent, but companies have skirted this rule for years — or outright ignored it, like YouTube did.

The ad networks used in HyperBeard’s apps included AdColony, AdMob, AppLovin, Facebook Audience Network, Fyber, IronSource, Kiip, TapCore, TapJoy, Vungle and UnityAds. Despite being notified of the issue by watchdogs and the FTC, HyperBeard didn’t alert any of the ad networks that its apps were directed towards kids, not to make changes.

The issues around the invasiveness of third-party ad networks and trackers — and their questionable data collection practices — have come in the spotlight thanks to in-depth reporting about app privacy issues, various privacy experiments, petitions against their use and, more recently, as a counter-argument to Apple’s marketing of its iPhone as a privacy-conscious device.

Last year, these complaints finally led Apple to ban the use of third-party networks and trackers in any iOS apps aimed at kids.

HyperBeard’s install base was below 50 million at the time of the settlement, we understand. According to Sensor Tower, around 12 million of HyperBeard’s installs to date have come from its most popular title, Adorable Home, which only launched in January 2020. U.S. consumers so far have accounted for about 18% of the company’s total installs to date, followed by the Chinese App Store at 14%. So far, in 2020, Vietnam has emerged as leading the market with close to 24% of all installs since January, while the U.S. dropped to No. 7 overall, with a 7% share.

The FTC’s action against HyperBeard should serve as a warning to other app developers that simply saying an app is not meant for kids doesn’t exempt them from following COPPA guidelines, when it’s clear the app is targeting kids. In addition, app makers can and will be held liable for the data collection practices of third-party ad networks, even if the app itself isn’t storing kids’ personal data on its own servers.

“If your app or website is directed to kids, you’ve got to make sure parents are in the loop before you collect children’s personal information,” said Andrew Smith, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, in a statement about the settlement. “This includes allowing someone else, such as an ad network, to collect persistent identifiers, like advertising IDs or cookies, in order to serve behavioral advertising,” he said.

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Parenting benefits company Cleo partners with UrbanSitter to address the US childcare crisis

Parenting benefits company Cleo is partnering with on-demand childcare service UrbanSitter to address a problem facing many parents today amid the pandemic: a lack of childcare, even as they’re required to return to work. With summer camps, daycares and schools shut down for the months ahead, parents who need to work outside the home (or even inside, but without distraction) no longer have options. Cleo’s new solution, Cleo Care, powered by UrbanSitter, aims to address this problem. The company is offering a package to employers that will help connect families with vetted caregivers via concierge support or, as an alternative, with family co-op options, depending on the parents’ preference.

The program will additionally include access to other Cleo support programs, like one-on-one coaching and age-appropriate programs focused on developmental milestones, delivered weekly.

The launch of the new product arrives at a time when the coronavirus outbreak has caused a childcare crisis in the U.S. Working parents have become homeschool teachers, on top of their already overwhelming number of duties. Parents fortunate enough to work from home, however, are continually interrupted by children’s needs, leading to longer working hours to accomplish tasks, and often mental and physical exhaustion.

Cleo surveyed its member base in April 2020, roughly 80% of whom are in the U.S., and found that more than 50% of respondents didn’t have any childcare options due to the pandemic’s impact. It also learned that 1 in 5 families (with two parents) were considering having one partner leave the workforce in order to manage the care of the children. Meanwhile, 37% were considering having family move in.

Among those who were working, more than half felt their productivity was 75% or less than usual. And 1 in 4 felt their productivity was less than 50% of baseline.

The problem is massive. In the U.S. alone, there are 30.5 million working families, based on Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The Cleo Care solution will be made available to U.S. employers this month to give parents more options, as well as help employers to bring their staff back to work, when the time comes.

Of course, there’s a variety of opinions about how and when the U.S. should re-open its economy. But the reality is that some parents will need to return to their jobs ahead of the re-opening of child care centers or summer camp programs, many of which have been canceled. In Facebook groups, parents are already trying to solve the problem for themselves by organizing with neighbors for childcare co-ops or by hiring teens or college students for daytime babysitting jobs.

But not everyone has these options. And employers can’t just direct staff to Facebook to find a caregiver.

Instead, the Cleo Care program will provide member parents with concierge support for finding vetted care providers from the UrbanSitter network. Or if the families would prefer to work with neighbors, the solution can also offer to match network members interested in co-op solutions.

These features are new to UrbanSitter, which has never before offered co-op matching and is making the new concierge service exclusive to Cleo Care.

“As working moms desperate for a solution to the crisis facing parents today, we were focused on developing a solution that didn’t just work for our members and enterprise clients, but also one that we’d use ourselves. After experimenting and trying everything from virtual care to scheduling shifts to looking for new caregivers ourselves, we realized the only solution that would work for families would require a new model of childcare designed for the unique issues COVID-19 has created,” said Cleo CEO Sarahjane Sacchetti.

Sacchetti, the former chief marketing officer of Collective Health, stepped in to lead Cleo after its original co-founder Shannon Spanhake was ousted following issues around company culture and a falsified resumé. Since then, Cleo has been expanding its business in the form of numerous partnerships, including those with Natalist, Milk Stork, Playfully, Dadi and others.

The solution will roll out in pilot testing with large U.S. employers to start, the company says. International employers will have access to its Cleo Kids coaching solution while Cleo looks for partnerships with care provider networks outside the U.S.

The employers will pay a combined monthly membership fee for access to Cleo Kids and UrbanSitter as well as one-time matching fees for co-op matching or care provider matching and placement, when used by a family. Cleo says it’s working with employers to explore models to cover some of the matching costs, which can be supported if an employer offers a dependent care FSA.

A sign-up form is here.

Image credits: Cleo

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Wide Open School organizes free educational resources to help parents and teachers homeschool

Nearly 300 million kids are missing school worldwide because of the coronavirus outbreak, including some 54 million in the U.S. alone. That’s left parents scrambling for resources to help continue their children’s education, often while also working from home themselves — an almost insurmountable challenge. Today, the non-profit media organization …

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