Apps rated appropriate for kids are actually manipulating them

The digital revolution is happening so fast. With little regard for the consequences, Big Tech has convinced parents to put screen devices in the hands of children at ever younger ages. But let’s say you’re a conscientious parent of a pre-schooler and you only let your child play games rated as appropriate for their tender age. All good? No, all bad.

Researchers at the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital have released a groundbreaking study, entitled “Advertising in Young Children’s Apps.” They took a close look at 135 of the most popular apps rated appropriate for children aged five and under in the Google Play Store. They found these games routinely engage in a number of manipulative advertising practices, like forcing kids to watch ads or make in-app purchases in order to advance in the game, disguising ads as game play, and using beloved characters to urge children to make in-app purchases.

The study found that the ads are extremely disruptive and essentially overwhelm the playing experience. When ads pop up, there is often no way to close them for several seconds. Once the tiny x appears to close the ad, good luck clicking directly on it—because if you miss, you’re taken to the advertised site. And kids are constantly urged to purchase better skills or options. Without the upgrade, the child will experience more frustration than fun in the game. With some of these games, kids spend almost as much time watching ads as they do in the game.

Even apps designated as “educational” had these deceptive distractions—93% had ads, and 45% had teasers to purchase a better version of the game. Such apps are unfair and deceptive, raise privacy concerns and—experts believe—they harm the healthy development of children.

This is certainly not what parents expect when told that an app is appropriate for young kids. Many parents don’t want their four or five-year-old to sit at a screen watching ads, and would not have allowed the child to play the game if they had known that ads would be shown. At that age, kids are very vulnerable, and they don’t understand the persuasive intent of marketing—especially when it’s disguised as part of game play.

Why are the most popular apps deemed “educational” or otherwise suitable for young kids designed to promote in-app purchasing and feature ads? Because what Google calls the “hybrid monetization” model for apps is a proven way to generate revenue. The app system has long been overlooked by U.S. regulators, which is unfortunate, since it’s a marketing and data collection cesspool. Where children are concerned, the FTC should step in to protect them from the “Wild West” business practices of the App market.

That’s why our groups, Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and the Center for Digital Democracy, have organized a coalition asking the Federal Trade Commission to step in now, and end this madness. We sent a letter urging the FTC to investigate and hold app makers accountable for unfair and deceptive practices, including falsely marketing apps that require in-app purchases as “free” and manipulating children to watch ads and make purchases. Twenty other groups joined CCFC and CDD in signing the letter, including TACD members Consumer Action, Consumer Federation of America, Consumer Watchdog, Electronic Privacy Information Center, Public Citizen, and USPIRG.

Google and their counterparts at Apple (who feature many of these same apps in their App Store) can show social responsibility and take action today. They need to ditch this business model, which is serving neither children nor their parents, and stop promoting manipulative apps as appropriate for children just to generate revenue for themselves and their partners.

But it is imperative that the FTC swiftly investigate, and order the companies which develop these apps to cease and desist from their unfair and deceptive practices. The agency could also issue a guidance on what practices are unacceptable in children’s apps.

Until something changes, what can parents do? Look carefully at any game before allowing a preschooler to play it. Don’t just accept marketing that says the game is appropriate for young kids. If you see a game listed by Google or Apple as appropriate for young kids actually tricks kids into watching ads and making purchases, complain to Google and Apple about it, as well as the company which makes the app. Look for a source that will make recommendations you can trust for games that are truly appropriate for kids. And at the young age of four or five, parents should not leave kids playing unsupervised.

The manipulative tactics described in the University of Michigan study threaten children across the globe. We encourage TACD members on both sides of the Atlantic to consider how we can promote action to address the problem. It’s time for regulators to give parents a hand, and make a clean sweep of the app marketplace.