Study finds potentially manipulative ads in apps for preschoolers

A small child plays with a cellphone while riding in a New York subway in December.
A small child plays with a cellphone while riding in a New York subway in December.
(Mark Lennihan / Associated Press)
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The Washington Post

Apps marketed to children ages 5 and younger deploy potentially manipulating tactics to deliver ads, raising questions about the ethics of child software design and consumer protection, according to a new study.

Researchers from the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital looked at more than 100 apps, mostly from the Google Play Store, and found that nearly all of them had at least one type of ad, often interwoven into the apps’ activities and games. The apps, according to the researchers, used a variety of ways to deliver ads to children. Those included using commercial characters, pop-up ads, in-app purchases and, in some cases, distracting ads, hidden ads or ads that were positioned as game play items.

The authors suggest that the deceptive and persuasive nature of the ads leave children susceptible to them, because of the kids’ lack of mental development in controlling their impulses and attention.


“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,” Jenny Radesky, a developmental behavioral expert and an author of the study, said in a statement. “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.”

Young children use mobile devices an hour a day, on average, highlighting the importance of researching what they encounter and how it may affect their health, Radesky added.

The study comes amid a broader backlash against technology giants and the popular apps that compete for users’ time and attention. In response, some of the biggest names in tech have released “digital wellness” tools to help people track how much time they spend on their smartphone apps, a kind of new-age calorie counting to boost awareness of tech’s influence on people’s daily lives. But in recent months, the skepticism aimed at Silicon Valley has also focused on opposing the early adoption of digital technology.

The federal government has long regulated television advertising to young children. But the authors say that ads found in digital media may be harder to quantify and regulate because they do not exist alongside predictable, linear TV segments; rather, they are more immersive and personalized. According to the authors, their study is the first to examine the advertising practices used in children’s apps and found “a high prevalence of advertising using distracting features, potentially manipulative approaches, and content that did not appear to be age-appropriate.”

The authors reviewed 135 apps and found that 95% of them contained at least one type of ad. They found that the prevalence of advertisements occurred at similar rates regardless of whether the apps were labeled “educational.”

The apps that the researchers reviewed came from another study on family mobile use and from the most-downloaded free and paid apps in the Google Play store, in the category for kids ages 5 and under.


A coalition of consumer groups and public interest organizations seized on the findings of the study, which is called “Advertising in Young Children’s Apps.” Led by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and the Center for Digital Democracy, the groups sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission on Tuesday, calling on the agency to launch an investigation of apps that cater to young children. The coalition argues that preschool apps engage in unfair and deceptive practices — a violation of consumer protection law — through the use of false marketing and tactics that manipulate kids to watch ads and buy upgrades.

“This groundbreaking study demonstrates that popular apps for preschoolers are rife with marketing that takes unfair advantage of children’s developmental vulnerabilities,” Josh Golin, executive director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, said in a statement Tuesday. “Disguising ads as part of game play and using cartoon characters to manipulate children into making in-app purchases is not only unethical, but illegal.”

Shaban writes for the Washington Post.