A study published in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, reviewed 135 different apps aimed at children — including many from the “5 And Under” category at the Google Play store — and found that 100% of free apps and 88% of paid apps included ads.
In addition, the frequency of advertisements was the same whether or not an app was classified as “educational.”
“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,” said the study’s senior author Jenny Radesky, a developmental behavioral expert and pediatrician at the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital. Radesky adds:
“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.”
Advertising in the US aimed at young children has been regulated by the Federal Communication Commission since the 1970s, based on research that showed children under 8 were not able to differentiate between programming and advertising. But as kids have become digital natives, little effort has been made to assess the impact of ads in the worlds they now inhabit.
Play in the apps was frequently interrupted by pop-up video ads, commercial characters persuading kids to make in-app purchases, and banner ads. They also documented instances where the apps asked the user to share information on social media sites.
Also, 17 of the apps requested permission to access phone functionality, 11 asked for microphone permission, nine asked for camera permission, and six requested location access. This could be in violation of the US Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, designed to protect the privacy of children under 13.
Radesky is particularly concerned about how ads negatively impact lower-income children, since in-app purchases were present in a third of all apps studied in the report, and 41% of all free apps. “My lower-income patients play free apps, and my interview participants have described relying on free apps to entertain their child when they have no money for real toys or other outings,” she says.
Child consumer advocacy groups, led by the Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) and Center for Digital Democracy, plan to file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission about the study’s findings.
“This groundbreaking study demonstrates that popular apps for preschoolers are rife with commercialism that takes unfair advantage of children’s developmental vulnerabilities,” Josh Golin, the CCFC’s executive director, said in a release accompanying the study. He added that the practices are “not only unethical, but illegal.”