Can App Ratings be Trusted?

Are app and game ratings just as unreliable as movie ratings? Find out if you can trust that rating when approving games and apps for your kids!

I’m sure you are just as shocked as I am when you see that Sixteen Candles, with its F word and frontal nudity, is rated PG! The SAME movie rating that Disney’s Frozen II has. I’m serious. Look it up. In the same vein, movies like Hacksaw Ridge have an R rating but have extremely religious messages.

Movie Ratings

This is why checking into the rating by reading the Common Sense Media Parental Review is also super important. This will explain everything that could be considered inappropriate for children in the movie in great detail. Vudu actually adds this review for you right within its app.

Game Ratings

Similarly, the ESRB has detailed explanations on why games have received the rating they have been given. They even recently participated in a documentary by Danny O’Dwyer of Noclip, which featured ESRB explaining how they decide on the ratings (the mini-documentary is 40 minutes long, but is super interesting, so check it out when you have some time).

App Ratings

They also give ratings to apps. The ESRB gives ratings for the Google Play Store, and Apple rates its own apps in the store. Recently though, someone in a parenting group I’m in warned others of the inaccuracy of the app ratings.

The specific claim was that Photoshop Express is given an E for Everyone rating, but has access to inappropriate images…

app ratings

Since I am an ESRB Parent Ambassador, I went digging and asked the ESRB to help me explain the situation. With these kinds of apps, the app itself isn’t the problem. The user-generated content available in the “Discover” tab is what can be considered inappropriate.

The ESRB does actually try to warn you about apps that have this capability. When looking at the rating, make sure to pay attention to the little i with a circle around it. Tapping on it will pop up an explanation of the additional features that could make the app inappropriate, like Users Interact or more typically called user-generated content.

app ratings

Entertainment Software Rating Board

My contact at the ESRB further explained, “Users Interact means that people downloading and/or using the app can communicate with others in some capacity. In this case, the app is predominantly used to edit photos, but it does include a “Discover” tab for users to share photos (if they want). This qualifies as user-generated content (UGC). ESRB cannot take into account UGC when assigning ratings, but these communications are often covered under a game or app’s terms of service. If you see any interactions that may have violated the terms of service we always suggest that you reach out to the developer to report them.”

While Users Interact can mean UGC, it can also mean communication can happen within the app. According to the ESRB “If you have an app that allows you to message or talk to other users that would also fall under Users Interact. Parents can use this to better understand when a game or app connects users directly and plan accordingly.”


There are actually 3 interactive elements in addition to “Users Interact” that the ESRB will warn you about.

  • In-Game Purchases – Lets parents know if a game or app offers the ability to purchase digital goods with real-world currency
  • Users Interact – Indicates possible exposure to unfiltered/uncensored user-generated content including user-to-user communications and media sharing via social media and networks
  • Shares Location – Includes the ability to display the user’s location to other users of the app
  • Unrestricted Internet – Provides unrestricted access to the internet (e.g., browser, search engine)

So, while app ratings CAN be trusted, you need to make sure to check into that app rating. Just like you would check out why a movie is rated PG or a game is rated M. Additionally, I usually read reviews of the app in the store too, so I can really know everything about it. If the app is buggy and reviewers are complaining about it, I will generally not let my child install it.

With technology, there can always be more to the story. Be sure to try and understand everything you can about an app before you allow your child to install it. Even if an app does have UGC included, there may be parental controls within the app to lock your child out of the area containing the UGC. You can check out various parental control settings for many different platforms and devices by visiting the ESRB’s website.

This post may contain affiliate links, which means I receive compensation if you make a purchase using the links.



About the author

Sarah Werle Kimmel

Sarah Werle Kimmel is a digital parenting coach and family tech expert. She has spent the last 20 years of her career working as a Microsoft Certified IT Manager supporting over 100 small businesses. During that time she started Family Tech LLC to help families understand and manage the technology in their home. She has regularly appeared as a family tech expert on local NBC, CBS, ABC and FOX news affiliates, BYUtv and Studio 5, and has been invited all over the world from tech companies like Lenovo, Verizon, Microsoft, Dell, and Samsung. Find out more on her website

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