95% of children’s free apps contain advertising

Advertising is worryingly ubiquitous in apps marketed to and played by children aged five and even younger, according to a US study.

In some cases, kids can spend more time watching the ads than actually playing the game.

Researchers from the University of Michigan’s C. Mott Children’s Hospital reviewed 135 commonly downloaded apps and found 95% included a least one form of advertising.

Play was frequently interrupted by pop-up video ads, persuasion by commercial characters to make in-app purchases to enhance the game experience, and overt banner ads that could be distracting, misleading and not always age-appropriate.

Paediatrician and developmental behaviour expert Jenny Radesky says her team’s findings, reported in a paper published in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, show that the market is “a wild west”, with a lot of apps more focused on making money than the child’s play experience.{%recommended 7249%}

“This has important implications for advertising regulation, the ethics of child app design, as well as how parents discern which children’s apps are worth downloading,” she says.

It’s an emerging area of concern and of research interest. A study released last year found that children “both resist and resign themselves” to the advertising strategies in games, for example, while in April US researchers highlighted how much the appearance of a popular character in an app can influence a child’s decisions.

For Radesky, one of the major issues is that digital advertising in apps is quite personalised and ever present, so children may think it’s just part of the game.

In the latest study, all free apps surveyed contained advertising, compared with 88% of purchased apps. Advertising videos interrupted play in more than a third of all apps but more than half of the free ones, while in-app purchase options were present in a third of all, but 41% of free apps.

This discrepancy worries Radesky because, she says, children from lower-income families are more likely to play free apps, which are packed with more distracting and persuasive ads.

Overt banner ads covering the sides or top or bottom of the screen during gameplay were present in 17% of all apps and 27% of free apps. Some banners promoted adult-appropriate apps that required a user to watch the full promo before a box could be closed.

The researchers also documented prompts to share information. This was most commonly related to their progress or score on the game, but 17 apps requested phone permission, 11 asked for microphone permission, nine asked for camera permission and six requested location permission.

While some of the permissions were likely sought to allow certain functions during play, the authors point out that collecting data on a child’s location is a potential violation of the US Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. 

Television advertising regulations in the US also limit commercial breaks during viewing segments, but there are no regulations focused on digital advertising approaches for children.

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