Commentary

Kids' Mobile Apps Are Filled With Manipulative Ads

Conditioning consumers earlier than ever, mobile apps designed for kids 5 and below are brimming with ads -- a fair share of which are “misleading” and “manipulative.”

That’s according to the University of Michigan Medical School; it research study encompassed 135 apps popular among the 5-and-under set.

The study -- just published in the Journal of Development and Behavioral Pediatrics -- found that 95% of kid-targeted apps contained at least one type of ad.

That included use of commercial characters (42%); full-app teasers (46%); videos ads interrupting play -- e.g., pop-ups (35%) or to unlock play items (16%); in-app purchases (30%).

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There are also prompts to rate apps (28%) or share them on social media (14%); and distracting ads, such as banners across a young users’ screen (17%).

More troubling, 7% of the apps included in the study were found to feature “hidden ads” with misleading symbols such as “$” or camouflaged as game-play items.

To create their coding scheme, the researchers downloaded and played 39 apps played by children aged 12 months to 5 years in a pilot study. Codes were then applied to the 96 most downloaded free and paid apps in the 5-and-under category on the Google Play app store.

Advertising was significantly more prevalent in free apps -- 100% compared to 88% of paid apps -- but occurred at similar rates in apps labeled as “educational” versus other categories.

Ultimately, the exploratory study found high rates of mobile advertising through “manipulative and disruptive” methods.

“These results have implications for advertising regulation, parent media choices and apps’ educational value,” the authors concluded.
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