Are Apps Aimed At Preschoolers Filled With Manipulative, Expensive Ads?

Today’s children are the first to grow up with mobile technology—and all of the internet—in the palm of their hand, waiting for them at any and all hours of the day.  As such—and despite how careful parents can be—apps for children can still be riddled with advertising that distracts from play or learning or manipulates them to make purchases or share their (or a family member’s) personal data.

A new study conducted has examined and analyzed ethical concerns in children’s games. And their findings have prompted a group consisting of 22 consumer advocacy and public health advocacy groups to draft a letter to the United States Federal Trade Commission, calling for them investigate questionable practices which, as the letter claims, aims to “routinely lure young children to make purchases and watch ads.” More importantly, the request demands the FTC holds mobile game and app developers accountable.

The study looked at 135 children’s apps, many of which are among the most popular games/apps on the Google Play store. Among these 135 apps/games, the research team found that 95 percent have at least one ad; and, more importantly, a majority of these ads press players towards buying an upgraded version of the free app.

According to study author Jenny Radesky, “Our findings show that the early childhood app market is a Wild West, with a lot of apps appearing more focused on making money than the child’s play experience.” The CS Mott Children’s Hospital developmental behavior expert and pediatrician goes on to say, “This has important implications for advertising regulation, the ethics of child app design, as well as how parents discern which children’s apps are worth downloading.”

Even without the results of this study, the American Academy of Pediatrics has warned (and continues to do so) about the overuse of screens to put children at elevated risk for major problems like obesity and sleep deprivation.  Other studies suggest, too, that limiting screen time for children improves brain function and, to no surprise, academic performance.

“This groundbreaking study demonstrates that popular apps for preschoolers are rife with marketing that takes unfair advantage of children’s developmental vulnerabilities. Disguising ads as part of gameplay and using cartoon characters to manipulate children into making in-app purchases is not only unethical but illegal,” explains Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood executive director, Josh Golin.  He adds, “What we’re hoping is that the FTC will find the app developers and fine them enough that it sends a clear message to the preschool app industry.”