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Watch Out for Manipulative Ads in Your Kid’s Mobile Apps

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It’s no secret that apps display ads to make money. But is it wrong for children’s apps to do same?

A new study is calling out the ad practices in apps designed for kids aged 5 and younger, claiming they can manipulate children into making purchases.

The study, from researchers at the University of Michigan and Taiwan’s National Chiao Tung University, examined 135 apps and concluded that some have been designed to guilt children into paying for in-game content. Others served up adult-themed ads—like a cartoon of President Donald Trump wanting to a press a nuke button, facts about bipolar treatments, and a car shooting game called Fastlane: Road to Revenge.

“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,” said the study’s authors.

Children Apps Ads

The findings prompted a coalition of advocacy groups, which include the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, to request that the Federal Trade Commission investigate the ad practices used by the app developers.

“If a child’s play is consistently interrupted by advertising and/or diverted to external websites and stores, the potential educational value of the app is completely undermined,” the organization wrote in a letter. “It is deceptive to parents to market games that are constantly interrupted by ads as ‘educational.'”

The study’s findings aren’t exactly a surprise; most apps, especially free ones, use advertising to raise revenue or prod the user to make in-game purchases. But the Michigan study raises questions over whether such ad practices should be used against young children, who may have no idea how ads even function.

The study examined 135 apps, most of them Android, and found that 95 percent used some form of advertising. Almost half employed in-game characters to encourage the child to make purchases for in-game items. “Alternatively, some app characters showed facial expressions or disappointment when the player was not successful or did not choose locked items,” the study said.

About a third of apps also served up pop-up video advertisements that interrupted the app’s gameplay. Another 17 percent used what the study’s authors called “distracting or deceptive ads,” which included the adult-oriented advertisements, in addition to virtual buttons that resulted in the child viewing other ads.

Although the ad practices may sound shady, Google pointed out that its app store, Google Play, does tell you when a software title contains ads and in-app purchases. You can also prevent a child from making unauthorized in-app purchases over your phone by going into Google Play’s settings and requiring authentication for all app purchases.

“Developers are able to support their businesses by showing advertising in their apps as long as they comply with our policies,” the company told PCMag in an email. “Play apps primarily directed to children must participate in our Designed for Families Program and must follow more stringent requirements, including content and ad restrictions, and provide a declaration that they comply with all applicable privacy laws.”

The company didn’t directly comment on whether any of the apps examined in the study violated Google’s advertising policies.

An FTC spokeswoman told PCMag that the commission has received the advocacy groups’ letter, but declined to offer further comment.

You can find a full list of the apps the Michigan study examined here.

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