These catchy names make it sound like educational apps offer the perfect mix of fun and learning for young minds -- Splash Math, SpellingCity, Cookie Doodle, Little Writer and Peekaboo Barn. With the aid of 80,000 other such products available through Apple’s App Store, it would seem that today’s parents have all the tools they could ever need to foster learning at their child’s fingertips.

But the educational claims of the vast majority of these tools are untested, according to a report published by the Association for Psychological Science. The authors caution that these apps are not held to any science-based standards or subject to certification that could help parents sort the most valuable tools from those masquerading as educational.

"We want parents to know that claims about educational content are completely unregulated. Any app developer can slap the 'educational' label on their product," Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a co-author of the report and early-development expert at Temple University, said in a statement.

Parents, meanwhile, seem to be buying into the promise of educational apps more than ever before – in 2013, 58 percent of parents said they had downloaded apps for their children to use, and more than 72 percent of the most popular apps available through the App Store are intended for toddlers and preschoolers.

The research team points out that educational activities should encourage children to take a physically or mentally active approach to learning and this characteristic is difficult for an app to simulate. Many so-called educational products are glorified games, while others prompt children to swipe their way through simple activities. Neither approach requires them to stop and think about a problem or work through a real-world scenario -- two proven strategies to improve learning during early development.  

Instead, researchers warn that app developers aspire to make products that are both educational and entertaining. Too often, developers sacrifice proven methods for gimmicks that keep kids coming back to the program. Many apps are overloaded with sounds, games and animation to make them appealing, but these features also distract children and may actually impede their ability to learn.

"Many apps marketed as educational are basically the equivalent of sugary foods,” Hirsh-Pasek said. "At best, most of these apps will do no harm; at worst, they add even more distraction to children's deeply distracting lives."

Her team says that since there are no formal evaluations or evidence-based standards for these programs, many parents are probably being duped by the idea that an app will improve their child’s intelligence or boost their test scores in the future.

"Many apps make dramatic promises -- from teaching advanced concepts to infants or even changing your child's brain," Jennifer Zosh, a co-author and cognitive development specialist at Penn State Brandywine, said. "Parents should use common sense and remember that an app -- even an educational app -- is just an app, not a miracle."

The research team emphasized in a Q&A that not every minute of a child’s day must be educational, and that playing with noneducational apps is a legitimate use of free time. They also reviewed literature on early education and cognitive development to identify four features of apps that are most likely to hold educational value: active involvement, engagement, meaningfulness and social interaction.

One of their favorite apps is Alien Assignment, which was created by the Fred Rogers Center at Saint Vincent College. This app leads children on a scavenger hunt through their home to seek supplies to repair an alien ship, and prompts them to share their discoveries with an adult. It earns extra points from the researchers for serving as a tool through which kids interact with other people and the physical world around them.

The researchers say parents who still want to incorporate apps into their child’s learning process should look for these five characteristics in identifying the highest-quality educational apps:

  • Avoid apps that keep children's attention through passive activities, like repetitive swiping. Instead, look for apps that require real mental effort and depend on the child's active participation.
  • Avoid apps that feature a lot of distracting bells and whistles. Instead, look for apps that support sustained engagement with the task at hand.
  • Avoid apps that present children with knowledge in a vacuum. Instead, look for apps that help children make meaningful connections between new information and what they already know.
  • Avoid apps that don't involve the most powerful learning resource we have -- other humans. Instead, look for apps that encourage social interaction via discussion, competition or conversation.
  • Avoid apps that tell your child what to know. Instead, look for apps that use guided exploration to help your child discover new information on their own terms.