Advertising Overload in Kids Apps

by | Nov 4, 2018

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There is no doubt that there a huge number of apps designed for kids – some are pure entertainment, some educational and some are a mix – edutainment. Early learning apps are a great way to help kids learn math, reading, science and as they grow, a greater number of topics become available. However, as parents we need to remain ever vigilant as many of those apps contain ads and in-app purchases. A recent study brings to light the statistics behind how many of these apps contain advertising.

95% of Apps for Young Kids Contain Ads

A study out last week underscores the concerns that we and many other parents have with apps targeted toward children. The lead researcher, Dr. Radesky, an assistant professor of developmental behavioral pediatrics at the University of Michigan Medical School, reported that in her study “95 percent of commonly downloaded apps marketed to be played by children ages 5 and under contain at least one type of advertising.” That is astounding and should be a wake up call to the F.T.C. Young children should not be exposed to advertising at such a young age. Unfortunately, they cannot distinguish between content and advertising. Some of what Dr. Radesky encountered was downright disturbing. Her findings noted that in the game Doctor Kids there was an unmarked ad that clicked through to the App Store. If the user tried to click away from the App Store, the character would cry. That is a manipulative tactic built into the game by the developer.

Another example from the study was Olaf’s Adventure* from Disney. Here at WebSafe Academy, we downloaded the game ourselves played the game for a bit. What we found was in line with Dr. Radesky and was very disappointing from a user experience and parent perspective. In the App Store, it states that there are in-app purchases, and does warn the user at start-up, but within moments after starting the game the player is presented with a glowing cake which draws the player’s attention. Upon clicking on the glowing cake, the user is presented with a pop-up for in-app purchases. The glowing cake misleads the user into thinking it is part of the game play. Furthermore, there was only a few seconds of actual play time before the glowing cake was encountered. We have provided screenshots of our experience with Olaf’s Adventure.

Free Apps-The Worst Offenders

Dr. Radesky’s study focused on the apps that were downloaded the most – free apps, which she found to be the ones with the most advertising. And sadly these are often the apps that are downloaded most frequently by the lowest income populations. Sadly, these apps provide the least about of educational enrichment because of the distraction from the overwhelming amount of advertising. This is a great disservice to an already disadvantaged population.

What Can You Do?

As we meet and talk to parents of young children, many express concerns about the apps and games they download for their kids. They really struggle with this issue. On the one hand, they want to allow their kids to engage with popular apps and games, but realize there are often issues with the inherent design of them. Others parents are surprised when we mention our concerns. The strategy we employ is multi-faceted. First, we scroll through the information provided in the App Store by the app developer. Does the app contain advertising and/or in-app purchases? Is there a paid version that will eliminate either or both of those? We prefer paying app developers for their hard work and downloading or upgrading to the paid version. There have been instances in which our daughter really wanted an app or game and we allowed it on a trial basis, but after using it for a little while, it became clear that to have any real enjoyment of the game, it required the purchase of more and more coins, tokens, etc. As she has gotten older, she is more aware of the traps that developers build into games and apps and knows that we are weary of ones that have ads and in-app purchases.

What Else Can You Do?

Being a savvy consumer and voting with your wallet is one of the strongest ways to send a message. By not downloading apps and games with ads or in-app purchases, you send a message that you are not a willing participant. But as mentioned earlier, this is a serious matter and should be a wake up call to the F.T.C. If you are motivated to do something further, contact your elected officials.

Need Help?

Feeling overwhelmed? We can help! We have a number of solutions for parents, schools and organizations to help kids stay safe online. Check out our Reviews page to discover and purchase a Parental Control app to limit the hours your child has access to their device. Or if you need personalized assistance with home web filtering or content settings, head over to our One to Ones page and select one of our personalized consultations.

* We downloaded and played the iOS version of the game from the Apple App Store, but also briefly tested the Google Play Store version  and had the same findings.

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