Being a parent means living with constant guilt. Just when the anxiety ebbs thanks to a parenting victory, it inevitably comes crashing back into your life. Certain things stoke parental angst more than others: what your child eats, if they’re hitting developmental milestones, whether they have enough friends, how they’re doing in school. And since the debut of the iPhone, parents have gained a new source of self-doubt and shame: screen time.
While the internet promises to put high-quality entertainment and enrichment at a child’s fingertips, it only takes handing over your phone so a cranky kid can watch yet another slime video on YouTube to feel like you’re failing at this whole parenting thing. That sinking feeling turned into nausea over the last year as the public learned how tech companies manipulate users’ impulses, often publishing and promoting garbage, so they can make a profit.
Parents are right to worry about whether screen time is poisoning their kids.
If the internet, at its most idealistic, once looked full of opportunities to become our best selves, it now resembles something like a wasteland, where everyone, including children, are encouraged to get knee-deep in radioactive sludge for fun. Parents are right to worry about whether screen time is poisoning their kids, but there’s a lot more they can do than panic, despair, or forbid screen time altogether. Instead, they can seek out the safest places on the internet and set their children free to explore.
If that sounds like yet another daunting task to add to your endless to-do list, take a deep breath and keep reading, because Mashable has spent months evaluating what online safety should look like and has compiled a list of recommended apps, platforms, and sites largely for children between ages 2 and 17. These recommendations are grounded in extensive conversations with numerous experts on screen time, digital technology, and child development. (To hear more from those experts and learn a strategy for vetting online environments for safety and well-being, read this .)
Most importantly, this list reflects a new definition of online safety. Traditionally, parents fret over strangers or bullies with bad intentions. Those are very real threats, but given the way persuasive design rules our online lives, luring us to spend hours on content and experiences that offer no real value, digital safety for children must also incorporate a child’s emotional, intellectual, and psychological well-being. Safety should include whether an app, platform, or site is designed to create meaningful experiences for children that prompt creativity, learning, and relationship-building.
Not every screen time session must enrich a child, because we don’t expect the same for adults, after all. There’s still a place for sheer, frivolous entertainment and zoned-out browsing, but parents can (mostly) put their minds at ease by developing a holistic definition of safety for themselves and then letting children spend most of their time online in spaces that live up to that criteria.
Our list is by no means exhaustive. , a nonprofit organization that tests, reviews, and rates children’s media and entertainment, is a terrific, comprehensive resource for when your child asks to watch PJ Masks, play Fortnite, or download Snapchat, and you want to know what to expect.
What our list offers is a framework for redefining online safety. One of our key metrics for safety is whether an app, site, or platform is designed to maximize time spent, or rather encourage curiosity, fulfillment, and well-being. You’ll see a handful of apps developed by PBS KIDS, which creates curriculum-based entertainment as an arm of the national public broadcaster PBS and doesn’t face market pressures to keep kids glued to a screen in order to impress investors. Theirs is a great model for creating digital media content for kids, but we’ve included plenty of sites, apps, and platforms from other companies and organizations that have found ways to prioritize child safety and well-being.
You’ll also notice that we have not recommended a video game or gaming platform or app, all of which are the subject of many parents’ screen time anxieties.
We were very encouraged by Roblox, a user-generated online gaming platform where kids can both develop and play games. Unlike many online games and their platforms, Roblox has a thorough set of that establish clear expectations for behavior and honoring diversity. That means being kind, patient, respectful, and welcoming. Last year, when a hacker a flaw in a Roblox game to simulate the sexual assault of a female avatar, the company took important steps to improve safety, including enhancing its content and chat filters as well as improving scanning tools with real-time alerts.
While we think Roblox’s stated values and overall culture make it a better environment for kids than some of its competitors — and hope the company’s guidelines and practices are widely adopted by the industry — we opted to wait and see how the massive platform with more than 50 million games lives up to its own standards before including it on our list.
To better understand how each recommended product was designed with kids’ safety in mind, we tested or reviewed each product and read the community guidelines looking for clear moderation, privacy, and conduct policies. We also interviewed its creator or a representative from the company or organization that created it. You’ll notice that many of our recommended sites, platforms, and apps explicitly prioritize civility, kindness, and creativity in their guidelines. That’s important to us because safety doesn’t just mean protection from strangers or bullies; it means intentionally cultivating an environment in which children can explore, experiment, and thrive.
While we can’t guarantee that your child will have a positive, rewarding experience on these apps, sites, and platforms — because the internet will always be the internet — we feel confident that you’ll find something to like in many of our recommendations. We also hope that even if one suggestion isn’t a fit for your child, the experience of testing it out gives you insight into how to identify a similar product that still feels safe.
Here are our picks, presented in alphabetical order:
Ages: 2 to 5
Why we’re recommending it: Parents love the PBS Show Daniel Tiger because it helps toddlers and preschoolers acknowledge and understand complex emotions. Daniel Tiger’s Grr-ific Feelings is an app that brings that experience directly to a device with a series of mini-games that help users calm down, feel proud, and deal with anger. Other activities, like the drawing easel and “feelings photo booth,” give kids a chance to express themselves and their emotions.
What to know: It’s easy to imagine an excited toddler rushing through the games without really learning the skills each activity is designed to teach. After all, it’s a much different experience when you can control Daniel Tiger’s next move versus seeing him animated on the television screen. Parents concerned that their child is glossing over what Daniel Tiger has to share because of the novelty of interacting with the character should co-play with their child to ensure they’re getting the most out of the app.
The bottom line: Daniel Tiger’s Grr-ific Feelings is a great tool to help reinforce social-emotional learning. Available in the iTunes Store, Google Play, and Amazon Appstore.
Type: Web platform and app
Ages: 4 to 17
Price: $15 to $25 per month depending on type of subscription.
Why we’re recommending it: If your child likes learning via online video and being a part of a larger community of kids, you want them on a platform like DIY.org. The site’s focus on kindness, friendship, and respect in addition to being “an awesome digital citizen” and keeping personal information safe. DIY.org publishes ad-free courses, videos, and challenges created by vetted experts. Examples include drawing bootcamp, taking a landscape photo, and making fluffy slime. Kids can record their efforts, post them to the platform, and be cheered on by a community of fellow users. What’s great is that your child will have to log off the platform to complete a course or project. All of that work must be done in real life, off the app and site.
What to know: Young users who are more skeptical or cynical of online communities might feel like DIY.org is too earnest for their taste. DIY.org is also big on communicating with parents via email tips, updates, and check-ins. Depending on your inbox zero aspirations, the frequency of those messages can be overwhelming. On the other hand, the level of involvement is great for parents who don’t want to micromanage their kids but still want some idea of what they’re doing online.
The bottom line: DIY.org is a subscription-based site for kids and teens that offers users expert instructional videos in subjects like drawing, science, basic engineering, and photography. Imagine the thrill of discovering creative videos on YouTube, but without encountering pedophiles, trolls, and critics. Available at DIY.org and at the iTunes store.
Ages: 2 to young adult
Why we’re recommending them: Khan Academy is a nonprofit organization that offers free educational lessons to users. Its apps and website are meant for children in grades kindergarten through early college and, for older learners, provides lessons in math, science, computing, and the arts and humanities. The lessons are designed around the concept of mastery and not gamification, which means users aren’t trying to earn in-app prizes but instead demonstrate their understanding of the subject matter. The online community for Khan Academy is a small component of the app experience and comments are moderated by full-time staff as well as automated tools.
Khan Academy Kids, which was built for 2- to 6-year-olds, includes educational lessons in subjects subjects like literacy, math, and language as well as social-emotional skill-building. Parents can track their child’s progress in mastering various concepts. The app contains no way for users to contact each other.
What to know: Though the Khan Academy app minimizes gamification, it does use a system of points and badges to reward users. “Mastery” points are awarded for completing various activities like watching videos, completing practice problems, and finishing computer programming challenges. Such incentives aren’t necessarily cause for parental concern, but it can be helpful to know that users may be motivated to engage with the app as a result. Similarly, Khan Academy Kids rewards users with digital accessories (think hats and toys) for the cast of cartoon app characters that show up regularly. The experience isn’t central to interacting with the app, particularly because you can’t easily track your rewards, but it may drive engagement for some kids.
The bottom line: The Khan Academy and Khan Academy Kids apps offer free, high-quality educational experiences for children, teens, and young adults. The Khan Academy app is available in the iTunes Store, Google Play, and Amazon Appstore. Khan Academy Kids is available in the iTunes Store and Google Play.
Ages: 4 to 7
Why we’re recommending it: Nature Cat’s Great Outdoors is an app based on the animated PBS KIDS series Nature Cat, a show about a house cat who dreams of exploring the outdoors. The app encourages kids to follow Nature Cat’s lead and go on “daily nature adventures.” There are over 100 such activities, including drawing a picture of a wildflower, photographing worms, and recording the songs of morning birds. The app offers indoor challenges as well, like making the sound of rain and recording it or drawing a Valentine’s Day card for nature. Users can collect badges like “nature pro” and “nature champion” after completing daily adventures.
What to know: Nature Cat himself enthusiastically nudges users who’ve paused momentarily, which can become grating to adult ears. But kids will appreciate the interactive aspect of using a device on their outdoor adventures.
The bottom line: Nature Cat’s Great Outdoors is an enjoyable app for kids who like the idea of bringing a digital journal on their adventures. It’ll also help kids who are curious about nature and need a little extra support to help them explore. Available in the iTunes Store, Google Play, and Amazon Appstore.
Type: Web platform
Ages: 3 to 19
Why we’re recommending it: Out of Eden Learn is an educational site and research project that places students and teacher-led classrooms in online learning groups with other students from around the world in order to explore and discuss issues related to world history, language, arts, geography, literacy, science, journalism, government, and humanities. These “learning journeys” happen over a period of 8- to 12-week long sessions. The grant-funded project was designed by experts from the Harvard Graduate School of Education who focused on “slow looking,” thoughtful intercultural dialogue, and inviting young people to make connections between their own lives and larger human stories. That means participants take time to look carefully at the world and each other’s work. Participants learn deliberate, respectful ways of responding to each other via comments. The site also has clear about behavior.
What to know: Students can only participate as part of a class or if a parent is guiding them through the process as part of a homeschooling experience.
The bottom line: Out of Eden Learn is an ideal platform for helping children and teens talk about big topics while learning how to communicate effectively and productively online with their peers.
Ages: 2 to 8
Why we’re recommending it: On the PBSKids.org website users can browse videos, games, and environments that mirror the world of a character from a PBS show (think Daniel Tiger, Sesame Street, and Curious George). The site is designed so that a child can’t click on an external link without arriving at a page making the transition very clear. It’s also fully encrypted and human moderators review user-generated content that could be objectionable like drawings made with the website’s tools. PBSKids.org doesn’t collect personally identifiable information from children and every click is anonymous unless a child logs into the site’s virtual world. Their username must be approved by a moderator and passwords are automatically generated.
What to know: PBSKids.org offers dozens of high-quality videos and games for young users, but parents shouldn’t mistake the safety of the environment as license to let their child spend hours on the platform. Educational games still have the power to distract kids from important things like physical activity and sleep. Additionally, ads for PBS sponsors appear prior to some video clips playing.
Bottom line: PBSKids.org is a safe site for kids to play educational games tied to their favorite television characters.
Ages: 3 to 12
Price: $7.99 per month or $79.99 per year
Why we’re recommending it: Child development experts and kid testers play a significant role in creating and experimenting with Pinna’s original audio content. The app is walled-off from the internet, which means there are no links or prompts that take users to surprising destinations that have nothing to do with their app experience. Some of the programming is interactive, encouraging young users to try things like practice mindfulness, create art, and answer trivia. You can also browse by age, which makes it easier to let a 5-year-old navigate her choices without worrying she’ll play content meant for a much older child. And once she hits play, nothing else pops up to keep her glued to the screen.
What to know: Pinna doesn’t yet have offline listening or playlists, but the company says that will change in the fall with an update to the app.
The bottom line: Pinna offers ad-free audio programming that includes podcasts, audiobooks, and music. Available at the iTunes store, Google Play, and the Amazon Appstore.
Ages: 3 to 5
Why we’re recommending it: Play&Learn Science is a great tool for helping kids develop basic science knowledge. Users can choose from activities like changing the weather with a sliding thermometer, testing how different items float or sink in water, and experimenting with how objects roll. A section for parents includes suggestions for related activities that will help your child learn in the real world. The app can also switch between English and Spanish.
What to know: Your child might find the app boring once they’ve played each of the app’s games, which have limited options and clear endpoints. Those are good things for their well-being, but parents who want to sustain a child’s interest in the subject matter should look for additional opportunities to learn and explore.
The bottom line: PBS KIDS’ Play&Learn Science offers 15 fun games that cover aspects of earth science, physical science, and life science. Available at the iTunes store, Google Play, and Amazon Appstore.
Ages: 4 to 11
Why we’re recommending it: The app creator Tinybop has a library full of whimsical, educational products for children. Robot Factory, which is the first in the company’s line of “digital toy” apps, lets users design their own robot from scratch and then test how it performs in an “outdoor” setting. Robot Factory maximizes the potential of digital technology with stunning, engaging graphics and design. The fact that users get to test their creation emphasizes the importance of taking risks, and, yes, failing. It’s frustrating to realize your robot can’t actually walk with the spindly legs or sharp claws you’ve given her. While the app makes it easy to create new robots, it has a “sandbox” approach to play, which means it’s not built to incentivize endless play through conquering levels, snagging rewards, or battling other robots. Tinybop also doesn’t collect identifying information from its users, which safeguards privacy.
What to know: Tinybop apps do not come with in-app directions. Instead, they’re accompanied by an in-app or downloadable manual that parents and young users can peruse for tips about how to use the app. That’s not a bad thing, per se, because it encourages self-directed play. Some users, however, may notice the difference compared to learning experiences that feature an animated guide or detailed instructions.
The bottom line: Robot Factory is a beautifully designed app that lets users experiment with creating robots and testing them in the “real” world. Available at the iTunes store.
Ages: 3 to 6
Why we’re recommending it: This app, which is based on the PBS KIDS Series Super Why!, turns five carnival-themed games into fun literacy lessons. “Whack-a-word” invites kids to tap pop-up words with the same endings (think quack, rack, and sack). The Spelling Spectacular Wheel introduces very basic sounds and spelling via a small ferris wheel that carries letters. The parents’ section includes a tracker so you can see a child’s progress on different tasks, including as they learn word families of varying difficulty.
What to know: The app lets users collect digital stickers as prizes for completing games. That makes sense given the carnival theme, but they don’t seem completely necessary for the experience. While they can only be used to “paste” onto a static background scene, and therefore shouldn’t prompt endless play, it is possible that the stickers and could distract a child rather than focus their attention on learning.
The bottom line: This literacy app from PBS KIDS uses the characters from Super Why! to help kids with word building, reading, and phonics skills. Available at the iTunes store, Google Play, and Amazon Appstore.
Why we’re recommending it: YouTube holds a lot of promise when it comes to educational video, but the massive platform just can’t deliver on safety. The Kid Should See This (TKSST) is a site that hosts thoughtful, engaging YouTube and Vimeo videos curated by Rion Nakaya, a parent and freelance design director. Nakaya posts videos across varying subject matter, including science, space, animals, and art. The videos feature content from museums, organizations, and creators who celebrate “curiosity, collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving, kindness, and so many other themes that are antithetical to internet toxicity.” Though Nakaya posts videos hosted by YouTube, and banner ads may still appear on those clips, she uses a WordPress plug-in that disables the platform’s promoted videos function. That means your child can watch a clip on TKSST without the YouTube algorithm inserting itself into their viewing experience.
What to know: The site does rely on income from advertising and affiliate links, which may give some parents pause. As a general rule, Nakaya recommends parents co-view videos on the site with their children.
The bottom line: The Kid Should See This is a terrific resource for parents who like the idea of educational videos but want a curated experience for their children.
Type: Website platform
Ages: 13 to 24
Why we’re recommending it: TrevorSpace is a members-only social networking platform where LGBTQ youth can make connections, explore their interests, and get support from adolescents and teens with similar experiences. The platform was designed by the nonprofit advocacy organization Trevor Project with safety and privacy as key considerations. TrevorSpace is ad-free and does not sell its user information to marketers. Tools to report abuse, harassment, or unwelcome behavior are clearly integrated into the platform’s chat functions. One full-time staff member moderates the platform, alongside several volunteer moderators. Because of the emphasis on safety and well-being, TrevorSpace feels like the tight-knit community you’d hope to get from a high-quality social networking platform.
What to know: TrevorSpace is still figuring out how to balance its users’ needs with ensuring their safety. The platform recently stopped enforcing a previous policy requiring full names and identity verification after hearing from users that, in part, it made them feel uncomfortable. It’s a good thing that TrevorSpace listens so closely to its users, but parents should expect for policies to change or evolve over time.
The bottom line: TrevorSpace gives LGBTQ youth a safe place to connect with each other.
Read more from this series: