Apps designed for young children are filled with ‘manipulative’ ads

31 Oct 2018

Image: © Anatoly Tiplyashin/

A new study shows that advertising in apps for young children may be far more prevalent than caregivers may realise.

From games based on television shows to educational tools, more and more parents are downloading apps for kids.

New research led by the University of Michigan’s Medical School examined 135 popular apps from the Google Play Store marketed to and used by children aged five and under. They found that 95pc of them contained at least one form of advertising.

The study was originally going to explore how parents use their mobile devices, but the researchers changed tack when they noticed the prevalence of the kids’ apps.

Some of the free apps included had up to 10m downloads, while paid apps had downloads ranging from 50,000 to 100,000.

Hard for children to make the distinction

The study, which was published in the Journal of Development and Behavioral Pediatricsfound that the ads on kids’ apps come in a variety of formats. These include teaser videos that interrupt gameplay, prompts to share on social media platforms, hidden ads with misleading symbols and in-app purchasing prompts.

For the very young children using the apps, it may not be easy to distinguish between the app’s legitimate content and ads.

Lead researcher, paediatrician Jenny Radesky, and her team said: “Children are known to develop trusting, emotional parasocial relationships with media characters, and pay more attention to and learn better from familiar characters.”

A parasocial relationship is a one-sided relationship where people extend emotional interest towards a party such as a celebrity or cartoon character, while the other person or character in the relationship is unaware of their existence. The researchers say that using the characters in ads “is a misuse of parasocial relationships”.

In the Strawberry Shortcake Bake Shop app, the study found the protagonist always states how much better the locked paid tools are than the free ones, while some characters in other games show disappointed facial expressions when the player does not choose to purchase a locked item.

Insidious ads on kids’ apps

Radesky singled out a particular type of ad for its insidious nature: ads where the user must click a tiny ‘x’ to close them. She explained: “If you’re a two- or three-year-old, you might think the ad is a part of the game. And you don’t know what to do.

“You might click on the ad and that could take you to the app store. Many of these ads require you to do things before the ‘x’ will appear.”

Radesky said she had seen ads that were not appropriate for children, including banner ads for bipolar disorder treatment.

The income disparity of children using the apps for kids is also notable, as free apps contained much more advertising than paid products. Radesky said: “I’m concerned about digital disparities, as children from lower-income families are more likely to play free apps, which are packed with more distracting and persuasive ads.”

As well as the widespread nature of advertisements on the apps examined, privacy risks also became apparent. 17 of the apps requested phone permission, 11 asked for microphone permission, nine asked for camera permission and six requested that the player share their location.

Child advocate groups call for investigation

The researchers hope that their findings will spur a movement for the regulation of in-app advertising, much like what television and print media has had in place for many years. More than 20 groups, including the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, have asked the US Federal Trade Commission to examine the marketplace further.

Google stated: “Apps primarily directed to children must participate in our Designed for Families Programme and must follow more stringent requirements, including content and ad restrictions, and provide a declaration that they comply with all applicable privacy laws.

“Additionally, Google Play discloses whether an app has advertising or in-app purchases, so parents can make informed decisions.”

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects