Advertising in Mobile Apps for Young Children -- Study Raises Concerns About Frequency and Content
Nearly all smartphone and tablet apps targeted at toddlers and preschoolers have commercial content, often using "manipulative and disruptive" advertising methods, reports a study in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, the official journal of the Society for Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics. The journal is published in the Lippincott portfolio by Wolters Kluwer.
"We found, particularly among free apps, a high prevalence of advertising using distracting features, potentially manipulative approaches, and content that did not appear to be age appropriate," according to the new research by Jenny Radesky, MD, of University of Michigan Medical School and colleagues.
Six Common Types of Advertising in Apps for Young Children
The exploratory study analyzed the rates and content of advertising in popular apps for children aged one to five years. A recent study reported that young children use mobile devices an average of one hour per day. In contrast to television advertising, there are no regulations concerning in-app advertising to children.
The researchers first performed a mobile device tracking study of 39 apps played by young children in order to develop a reliable coding scheme. Using this scheme, they then evaluated the prevalence, design, and content of advertising in the 96 most commonly installed free and paid apps marketed to children aged 5 years and younger.
Overall 95 percent of apps had at least one type of advertising, including 100 percent of free apps. Dr. Radesky and colleagues focus on six categories of ads, in order of frequency:
- Commercial characters, such as characters from cartoon and toy franchises. Often these characters "not only were the object of gameplay, but also had interactions with the user that could be characterized as social pressure or validation," the researchers write.
- Full-app teasers, including prompts to upgrade to the full version of the app, which was often promoted as being "ad-free." In some cases, children could see but not unlock additional levels or game items without upgrading.
- Ad videos interrupting play, including "pop-ups" that couldn't be closed until after the player had viewed the entire ad. "In some apps...pop-up videos took up roughly as much time as gameplay," the researchers note. Some pop-ups prompted children to watch an ad in exchange for items to make gameplay faster or easier.
- In-app purchases. Many apps allowed children to buy premium game items or additional gameplay time. Sometimes these purchases were specifically encouraged by commercial characters. This practice, called "host selling," is banned in children's television advertising.
- Prompts to share information, including rating the game at app stores or on social media. A few apps even requested data on a child's location - a potential violation of the children's online privacy laws.
- Distracting and deceptive ads, including some ads that were clearly inappropriate for children. Some apps contained ads "camouflaged" in game items, which would play an ad video when clicked.
While previous studies have examined the quality of educational and literacy apps for children, the new study is the first to look at the advertising children are exposed to when playing with mobile and interactive media. The authors discuss the implications for advertising regulation, parent media choices, and the educational value of apps for young children. They note that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends elimination of advertising in apps marketed to children 5 and under.
"These results have implications for advertising regulation, parent media choices, and apps' educational value," Dr. Radesky and colleagues conclude. They suggest that designers and app stores could take steps to develop and promote higher-quality apps for children.