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The best streaming apps for kids

What to stream if YouTube isn't sanitized enough for your liking.
Billy Steele
05.09.19 in Services
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Brett Putman/Engadget; gif by Aaron Souppouris

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On the surface, it seems like a great idea. YouTube is home to all kinds of quality video content, so a dedicated, age-appropriate version for children sounds great. However, even with a host of parental controls, YouTube Kids is still plagued with issues in regard to content.

Whether it's conspiracy videos or obviously disturbing clips, YouTube Kids is flooded with terrible content. But that's not surprising. With 10 hours of video uploaded every second, trying to police YouTube content is like trying to slow the water coming out of a fire hydrant. A spokesperson said last year, "We've taken a series of tough actions to better protect families on YouTube and YouTube Kids, including getting content down faster through technology, hiring more people to help us tackle content that breaks our rules and cutting the revenue streams to content that misleads families." But those actions haven't always been enough.

In response to criticism, YouTube has tried to deter users from posting offensive videos. In 2017, it altered its policy on what types of content would be eligible for ad money. Those changes kept clips that show "family entertainment characters engaged in violent, sexual, vile or otherwise inappropriate behavior, even if done for comedic or satirical purposes" from earning money. YouTube also improved its parental controls. Last April, the company added the option of only seeing content that had been approved by "partners and the YouTube Kids team." Then in September, it expanded that feature so that kids using the app would only see what their parents approved.

When asked about any improvements since September, YouTube explained that it has added a number of new features, including stronger controls for parents. Things like timers, profiles, an option to disable search and the ability to approve both videos and channels are all on that list. And the company also reiterated that is offers collections that have been curated by trusted partners and YouTube Kids, which include channels like Sesame Street and PBS.

Even though these changes have made a difference, YouTube Kids is still YouTube. And like the main version of the site, the quality of content ranges from acceptable to stuff that's just... weird. I don't know about you, but I'd rather my four-year- old play with his own toys than watch YouTube videos of kids playing with theirs. That's not offensive per se, but it's a little strange to me. Thankfully there are alternatives to YouTube Kids -- ones that are less likely to serve your little one up some nightmare fuel.

PBS Kids (ages 3 and up)

The PBS Kids app is my favorite option when my son wants to watch something on a phone or tablet. It's available on Android, iOS and Kindle Fire, so you should be able to access it on any device you take out of the house. Beyond being a safe space content-wise, the software is designed so that kids can easily navigate it. The app offers a live feed to whatever's on the air at the moment in addition to a wealth of on-demand episodes. The likes of Daniel Tiger, Curious George, Clifford, Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street are all there. And if you want to beam that stuff to a bigger screen, the app offers both Chromecast and Airplay connectivity (under adult supervision, of course). And the best part: It's free.

Amazon FreeTime (ages 3 and up)

Amazon's option is great, especially if you own the kid version of the Kindle Fire tablet. It's a $2.99 monthly subscription (on top of Prime), but that gives you access to more than 20,000 popular apps, games, videos, books and Audible books. There's also educational content from the likes of PBS Kids, Nickelodeon, Disney and more. And when you buy one of the tablets, you get a year of FreeTime included.

FreeTime goes beyond the regular streaming app. There are features like locking videos and games until educational goals are met -- things like reading time, for example. There's also a host of parental controls, like setting the age range for content, and there's no access to social media, the internet or in-app purchases without your approval. You can also add content from Netflix, YouTube and more as you see fit. And as you might expect, your kid can watch kid-friendly Amazon originals like If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, Tumble Leaf and The Stinky & Dirty Show.

You don't have to buy a Kindle Fire, though; FreeTime is also available on Android and iOS.

Netflix Kids (ages 3 and up)

It's true that Netflix has a lot of good stuff for kids... if you're careful. The dedicated Kids section is relatively safe, and you can set an age rating on individual profiles. However, you'll want to keep tabs on what's popping up there to make sure it's age appropriate. The first row of content is characters, so you and your child can easily search for what they want to watch rather than trying to help them "read" rows of show title cards. Trolls, Talking Tom, Super Why!, PJ Masks and other popular titles are all here. However, be warned that there are also things like Boss Baby and Captain Underpants that might not be the best for the youngest viewers.

More specifically, if you opt for "Little Kids" on your content setting, you'll only see items rated G, TV-Y and TV-G.: in other words, content suitable for all ages. When you bump it up to "Older Kids," you get PG, TV-Y7, TV-Y7-FV and TV-PG: the stuff you'll probably want to keep an eye on.

Netflix is currently pushing its Our Planet series in the Kids section. Sure, it's great educational TV and probably fine for the most part, but the streaming service has already issued warnings for the more graphic portions of episodes. Proceed with caution.

Things like Our Planet popping up are also the main reason to not use a regular profile for your child. Stick to the Kids section or make sure you set an age rating for any profile you create for your child. I'm speaking from experience here. If Netflix is hyping a new show, it usually shows up even if you haven't watched anything similar -- like The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and Punisher. This is likely due to set categories like Crime TV Shows that show up on all "regular" profiles, but still, it's not what you want your kids to watch on Netflix. Take it from someone who learned the hard way when his son almost saw an episode of The OA and stick to Netflix Kids.

DisneyNOW (ages 4 and up)

Disney is definitely getting in on the kid-friendly streaming action. DisneyNOW offers content from Disney Channel, Disney XD and Radio Disney. For younger viewers, there's stuff from Disney Junior. When you first sign up, your child can pick "favorites" based on a selection of character thumbnails. Shows are arranged in a Netflix-esque grid of images, so it's easy to find what you're after. There's also a selection of games, Disney Channel originals and access to whatever's on live TV at the moment -- much like PBS Kids. Some of the content here is completely free, but you'll need a TV-provider log-in for full access.

Cartoon Network (ages 9 and up)

For older kids, Cartoon Network has a ton of apps. Many of them are character- or show-specific, but there's also a main Cartoon Network app for streaming, available on iOS, Android and Amazon. There are some full episodes of nostalgia-inducing classics like Powerpuff Girls available as well as new hits like Teen Titans Go!, The Amazing World of Gumball and Steven Universe without a subscription-TV account. But to unlock everything it has to offer, you'll need a cable/TV log-in.

Nickelodeon (ages 4 and up)

Nick, as the kids call it these days, has three apps: Nick, Nick Jr. and Noggin. While Nick and Nick Jr. offer full access with a TV log-in, Noggin is actually a $7.99 monthly subscription. For the commitment, you'll get a host of content for preschoolers, including age-appropriate shows, interactive videos and more that cover things like numbers, shapes, letters/sounds, music, art and manners. Plus, Paw Patrol, Blue's Clues, Peppa Pig, The Backyardigans, Yo Gabba Gabba, Dora the Explorer and more are all here. It's available for iOS, Android, Amazon and Roku.

There's a literal ton of options for kid-friendly content, and these are just a few of the better ones. As with anything your kid consumes, it's important that you pay close attention to what these apps are serving up and take action when there's something you'd rather not have them watch. Not every app will work for every family, and that's OK, but it's worth taking the time to find out what works for you. And it's most important to find what you can trust to not show your kids something inappropriate or downright terrifying.

All products recommended by Engadget are selected by our editorial team, independent of our parent company. Some of our stories include affiliate links. If you buy something through one of these links, we may earn an affiliate commission.
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