95% of Kids’ Apps Contain at Least One Type of Advertising, Says Study
Edu-tainment apps are the 21st-century parents’ dream: they promote learning while also facilitating children’s comfort with technology… Or do they? As many parents have also come to realize, screen time has some very serious downsides when it comes to children’s learning and development. Now, a new study highlights an additional problem with “educational” apps — parents seldom realize how much their children are being targeted by advertisers while they’re playing these games.
In a new study published in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, researchers found that 95% of commonly downloaded apps marketed to or played by children ages 5 and under contain at least one type of advertising. The study was led by University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital and reviewed 135 different apps; it is the first study to examine the prevalence of advertising in children’s apps.
Researchers found play was frequently interrupted by pop-up video ads, persuasion by commercial characters to make in-app purchases, and overt banner ads that could be distracting, misleading and not always age-appropriate.
“With young children now using mobile devices on an average of one hour a day, it’s important to understand how this type of commercial exposure may impact children’s health and well-being,” says senior author Dr. Jenny Radesky, a developmental behavioral expert and pediatrician at the hospital.
Radesky notes that her team found high rates of mobile advertising through manipulative and disruptive methods — with exposure to ads even surpassing time spent playing the game in some cases.
“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,” she says. “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.”
The researchers found troubling discrepancies in advertising between paid and free apps: Although 100% of surveyed free apps contained advertising content (compared to 88% of purchased apps), the ads occurred at similar rates in all apps categorized as educational. Video ads were prevalent in more than a third of all analyzed apps and in more than half of free apps. In-app purchases were also present in a third of all apps, and in 41% of all free apps. “I’m concerned about digital disparities, as children from lower-income families are more likely to play free apps, which are packed with more distracting and persuasive ads,” Radesky noted.
Prior research has found children ages 8 and younger can’t distinguish between media content and advertising, which raises further ethical questions around the practice, and places the burden for teaching digital literacy on parents.
“Commercial influences may negatively impact children’s play and creativity,” Radesky says. “Digital-based advertising is more personalized, on-demand and embedded within interactive mobile devices, and children may think it’s just part of the game.”
These apps can also be concerning from a privacy and safety perspective. Researchers documented prompts within the apps to share personal information. Most games asked players to share their scores on social media, but 17 of the apps reviewed requested phone permission, 11 asked for microphone permission, nine asked for camera permission, and six requested location permission.
While some of the permissions could be seen as harmless and simply facilitating play, authors point out that collecting data on a child’s location is potentially illegal in some countries.
There is also growing concern among pediatricians and other experts that low-quality content and distracting visual and sound effects in popular apps may not be designed appropriately for children to learn, says Marisa Meyer, the study’s lead author. That prevalence also diminishes the educational quality of apps.
The problem is that many parents view the ‘educational’ marketing as a signal that the content has been approved by some regulatory body or has been vetted by childhood development experts. This is a thorough misconception in how and why these apps are designed and marketed. In India, there is no regulation around what children’s content is marketed as educational, meaning that the ‘educational’ or ‘learning’ sticker is nothing more than clever marketing aimed at well-meaning parents.
It is incumbent on parents to educate themselves about the apps their kids spend time on, to learn what types of advertising on those apps might be harmful for their children, to understand the privacy implications of this type of digital engagement. And above all, in this digital ‘wild west,’ until government regulations catch up with the rapid proliferation of digital content, parents must be informed gatekeepers of their children’s online experiences.