If you are among the parents who believe that allowing your children to use kids’ apps is a good thing, then the results of a new study must shock you. This new study claims apps aimed at preschoolers are often manipulative and flooded with ads.
Complaint sent to the FTC
The University of Michigan Medical School released the findings of their study on Tuesday. The pediatric researchers and authors involved in the study found that kids’ apps manipulate children into watching ads and making in-app purchases, leading to potentially harmful behavior.
Following the study, consumer and public safety advocates sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The letter asks the agency to monitor the preschool app market and end such deceptive practices. Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) and the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD) are leading the effort with support from other consumer and public health advocacy organizations.
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These consumer groups claim such apps breach the FTC’s rules by hiding ads, programming characters to encourage kids to make purchases, and tricking parents into believing the apps are educational.
“What we’re hoping is that the FTC will fine the app developers and fine them enough that it sends a clear message to the preschool app industry,” CCFC Executive Director Josh Golin told BuzzFeed News.
Researchers studied about 135 popular free and paid apps on iOS and Android. About one-third of these apps were tagged as “educational.” Most of them boast over 10 million downloads each, while some have been downloaded more than 50 million times. Researchers found that 95% of these kids’ apps featured at least one type of advertising, like pop-up ads, banner ads, in-app purchases and more.
How kids’ apps manipulate children
In some cases, the ads were hidden inside games or activities. For instance, in Disney’s Olaf Adventures, children are invited in by a glowing cake. After they select it, a pop-up asks them to “protect Anna’s cake” by paying $3.99. In another app, Espace Publishing’s Kids Animal Jigsaw Puzzle, pop-up video ads “took up about as much time as gameplay,” the study says.
The most disturbing example is in Doctor Kids, in which a character cries unless an in-app purchase is clicked.
“Children form real attachments to these characters,” Golin said. “For a kid, that’s a pretty powerful thing to express, when a character is crying.”
Further, researchers found that banner ads in some of the apps included inappropriate content. For instance, one showed a Health Living Today ad entitled “10 Bipolar Facts to Learn: Search Treatments.” Some apps even showed games like Pocket Politics, in which a President Trump cartoon is shown wanting to press a “nuke” button.
Moreover, researchers found that in nine kids’ apps, the ads were “camouflaged.” In other words, they were made to appear like part of the game, but they bring up a video when selected. For instance, in the hugely popular My Talking Tom app (over 500 million installs on Google Play), children see a present dropping from the ceiling. Tapping it will trigger a pop-up asking them to “watch videos and win.”
Does Google know about the problem?
Advocacy groups argue that Google must also help to put an end to such practices.
“Google in fact knows and is a co-conspirator with the developers,” CDD Executive Director Jeff Chester said, according to The New York Times.
In its defense, Google said app developers are free to show any ads as long as they don’t violate privacy laws and the company’s policies. Google’s policies bar developers from collecting data on users under the age of 13.
Further, the search giant said apps targeted at children must follow more stringent requirements for content and ads. The company also said the Play Store reveals if an app includes an ad or in-app purchases to help parents make informed decisions.
Apple does not allow apps to be listed under the Kids category on the App Store if they have in-app purchases or if they target ads based on the user’s activity.
However, researchers feel Apple and Google need to do more. They also hope the new study will encourage parents to ask more questions about the apps their children are using, eventually leading to stricter regulations for kids’ app.
There are rules in place for TV ads aimed at children. For example, show hosts are not allowed to sell products, and product placement adds are not allowed. However, such rules, which are set by the FTC, are not applicable to internet advertisers.