Popular apps for young kids, especially those available in Google’s app store, are teeming with advertisements that distract them from play, manipulate them to make purchases, and extract their personal data.
That’s the conclusion of a new study that’s prompted a slew of child advocacy groups to ask the US federal government to investigate these products. The groups argue that many apps violate the Federal Trade Commission Act by disguising ads, programming characters to lure kids into purchases, or misleading parents into thinking the games 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,” Josh Golin, executive director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, told BuzzFeed News. His group and 21 others signed a letter sent to the FTC today outlining their concerns, based largely on the new study’s findings.
On TV, ads aimed at kids must follow certain rules. Product placement isn’t allowed, for example, and neither is “host selling,” when a character encourages kids to buy something. But those rules, set by the Federal Communications Commission, don’t apply to the internet. “The FCC wouldn’t touch this,” Golin said. “We have this regulatory vacuum.”
The new study looked at 135 kids apps, a mix of paid and free, iOS and Android, including 96 of the most frequently downloaded in the “Ages 5 and Under” category of the Google Play Store. About one-third were labeled “educational.” Most of the free apps had been downloaded more than 5 million times each, and the paid ones more than 50,000 times.
Almost all — 88% of paid apps and 100% of free ones — contained at least one type of advertising, the study found, such as pop-up ads, banner ads, in-app purchases, and commercial characters.
Banner ads sometimes showed content that’s inappropriate for kids, the researchers said, such as a Health Living Today ad for “10 Bipolar Facts to Learn: Search Treatments.” Other ads were for apps like Pocket Politics, a game that shows a cartoon of President Trump wanting to press a “nukes” button, and FastLand, a car shooting game. Both of these app ads played a demonstration video before they could be closed.
For Golin, one of the most disturbing examples was Doctor Kids, which shows a character crying if you don’t click on an in-app purchase. “Children form real attachments to these characters,” he said. “For a kid, that’s a pretty powerful thing to express, when a character is crying.” (Doctor Kids’ maker, Bubadu, did not respond to a request for comment.)
Nine of the kids apps contained what the researchers call “camouflaged” ads, which are made to look like part of the game but bring up a video ad when clicked. On the My Talking Tom app, for example — which has had more than 500 million installs, according to Google Play — kids will see a present drop down from the ceiling. If they tap on it, they’ll be prompted to “watch videos and win.” (The maker of My Talking Tom, Outfit7, did not respond to a request for comment.)
In Builder Game, which has more than 10 million installs on Google Play, thought bubbles pop up over characters telling the child what to do. Sometimes, the study found, the bubbles led to games that could only be played after watching an ad. (Builder Game’s creator, also Bubadu, did not respond to a request for comment.)
The leader of the new study, pediatrician Jenny Radesky of the University of Michigan, remembers one morning last winter when she observed her then 8-year-old son playing an app called Masha and the Bear Vet Clinic, in which he tried to help remove thorns from a sick wolf. After watching an ad video, the game gave him a tweezer that made it easier to get the thorns out and accumulate candy rewards.
“I asked him, ‘Why are you willing to watch an ad video just to do that?’ He said, ‘I get candy,’” Radesky told BuzzFeed News. (The owner of Masha and the Bear, Animaccord, did not respond to a request for comment.)
Her son is like most kids his age or younger, she said, who don’t have the critical thinking skills to understand the “persuasive intent” of an advertisement — that the apps want you to watch the ads because they financially benefit. “That sort of stuff was really hard for him to understand.”
Past studies have shown that even brief exposures to ads embedded in cartoons and other media can influence children's brand preferences, noted Tom Robinson, professor of pediatrics at Stanford University. It's "disheartening," he said, "that so many app makers are willing to use such insidious methods that so obviously take advantage of children’s vulnerabilities."
Most of the public furor over screentime, both in academic studies and the popular press, has focused on the amount of time that kids use apps, with kids under 5 averaging about one hour per day with mobile devices. But researchers are beginning to recognize that what kids are seeing and doing with technology is just as, if not more important than how long they’re doing it. (Radesky, for example, is not anti-app: For patients who struggle with temper tantrums, she recommends watching Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood apps, which she says can “teach both parent and child what to do in a moment of stress.”)
In 2016, Radesky helped write the latest American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines for kids and screens. Although the guidelines were less restrictive than the previous version, when it came to the subject of advertisements they drew a hard line, saying that advertisements in kids apps should be eliminated. “It’s not ethical because they don’t understand it. They’re just going to click on it,” Radesky said.
Another big concern of kids apps is data privacy. Although the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) limits how much personal information can be collected and tracked from kids under 13, thousands of apps distributed by Google may violate the rule, according to a report published earlier this year. Six apps analyzed in the new study requested users’ location information, a potential violation of COPPA.
“It’s a race to the bottom right now with a lot of these preschool apps,” Golin said. “Their whole goal is to get higher in the Google Play Store ranking.”
Platforms like Google and Apple have a gatekeeping role to play, he and Radesky agreed. Apple, for instance, doesn’t allow apps to be listed in the “Kids” category of its iOS App Store if they have in-app purchases (unless they are behind a parental gate), or if they serve ads based on the user’s activity (although they can still serve ads).
Perhaps it’s not surprising that Apple, which built a business around fancy devices and curated services, would have app rules that could hurt its advertising revenue. Google, on the other hand, is in the ad business.
In an emailed statement, a Google spokesperson said that Google Play apps primarily directed at children must participate in its “Designed for Families” program. They must adhere to COPPA rules and certain ad and content restrictions. “Additionally, Google Play discloses whether an app has advertising or in-app purchases, so parents can make informed decisions.” (One of its kid-specific rules, for example, forbids showing ads that could be mistaken for app content — which seems to have been violated by some of the apps flagged in the new study.)
Radesky hopes platforms like Google and Apple will do more. “If they could just put the good stuff up top, that would be awesome.”
This story has been updated with comments from Tom Robinson.