Under-fives are being blitzed with app-based ads which are often manipulative, inappropriate or deceptive, according to a coalition of campaign groups.
Examples given include a character crying if the child does not pay to unlock part of a game, and an app promoting another title that showed a cartoon of the US president trying to press a “nukes” button.
More than 20 groups have called on US regulators to launch an official probe.
A UK charity has also urged action.
The calls were prompted following a report by the University of Michigan’s Medical School into the phenomenon.
Its researchers reviewed a total of 135 apps available via Google’s Play Store, which are marketed to or played by children under five.
Of these, 85 were “free” and had some sort of advertising. The other 50 – of which 88% had ads – were paid for.
“Our findings show that the early childhood app market is a wild west, with a lot of apps appearing more focused on making money than the child’s play experience,” commented the study’s senior author Jenny Radesky.
“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.”
The study gives several examples of advertising techniques which it thinks raise concern:
- use of commercial characters – in Paw Patrol: Air and Sea Adventures it says some characters show facial expressions of disappointment when the player does not choose locked items
- teasers – in the free version of Balloon Pop it says the user is shown fancier-than-normal balloons, but if selected a sound effect and written text state that they are only available in the full app
- interruptions – in Kids Animal Jigsaw it says pop-up ads appear every time the player completes a puzzle, meaning they take up about as much time as gameplay
- character encouragement – in Strawberry Shortcake Bake Shop it says the protagonist always states how much better the locked pay-to-use tools are than the free ones
- unsuitable ads – one unnamed app was said to feature banner adverts for bipolar disorder treatments and Instagram, which has a 13+ age limit
- camouflaged items – in Talking Tom it says that a present falls from the ceiling which appears to be part of the game but is actually a prompt to “watch videos and win”
Most of the developers involved have yet to comment, but the team behind Talking Tom have acknowledged the problem.
– Leo Kelion