Many developers market apps for children as being educational. So Jenny Radesky, a pediatrician who wrote the American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines for children and media, wanted to check that out.
“One of my big concerns about why apps might not be educational was because of the presence of distracting features such as banner ads that sit along the top of the screen and which contain stimuli that are irrelevant to the learning objective,” Dr. Radesky said. “And we were expecting to see those.”
She was not expecting all the rest.
In apps marketed for children 5 and under in the Google Play store, there were pop-up ads with disturbing imagery. There were ads that no child could reasonably be expected to close out of, and which, when triggered, would send a player into more ads. Dancing treasure chests would give young players points for watching video ads, potentially endlessly. The vast majority of ads were not marked at all. Characters in children’s games gently pressured the kids to make purchases, a practice known as host-selling, banned in children’s TV programs in 1974 by the Federal Trade Commission. At other times an onscreen character would cry if the child did not buy something.
“The first word that comes to mind is furious,” said Dr. Radesky, an assistant professor of developmental behavioral pediatrics at the University of Michigan Medical School. “I’m a researcher. I want to stay objective. We started this study really just trying to look at distraction. My frustrated response is about all the surprising, potentially deceptive stuff we found.”
Her team of researchers spent hundreds of hours playing 135 different games. Published in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, the study’s findings are stark: 95 percent of commonly downloaded apps marketed to be played by children ages 5 and under contain at least one type of advertising. The researchers concluded many of these examples seemed to violate F.T.C. rules around unfair and deceptive advertising.
To accompany the publication of the study, called “Advertising in Young Children’s Apps: A Content Analysis,” more than a dozen media and children’s health advocacy organizations sent the F.T.C. a letter asking for an investigation.
“This is kind of a one-two punch,” said Jeff Chester, the executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group the Center for Digital Democracy, which led the effort along with the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. “Usually these academic studies are published and there’s no consequences,” he said, “but here when we learned of her research it was clear from the beginning that there were public policy implications.”
The letter brings up a few specific findings from Dr. Radesky’s research: In Olaf’s Adventures, published by Disney, clicking on a glowing cake that is not marked as an ad takes the player to a store; in Doctor Kids, published by Bubadu, a character cries if the player clicks away from the in-app store.
“We urge the commission to immediately launch an investigation of Android apps designed for, and marketed to, young children and hold developers accountable for their practices,” the letter states.
The group argues that these advertising tactics violate Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act, which bans unfair and deceptive business practices.
Mr. Chester said the Google app marketplace should not allow these apps to be directed to kids at all. “Google in fact knows and is a co-conspirator with the developers,” he said.
In a statement, a Google spokesperson said app developers can show ads so long as they agree to comply with privacy laws and the company’s policies, such as barring advertisers from collecting information on users under 13.
“Apps primarily directed to children must participate in our Designed for Families Program and must follow more stringent requirements, including content and ad restrictions,” the statement said. It added that Google Play “discloses whether an app has advertising or in-app purchases, so parents can make informed decisions.”
Kathryn Montgomery, who helped lead the effort that resulted in the landmark Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998, said she thinks now is the moment for another landmark action to protect children.
“The tide has turned,” said Dr. Montgomery, a professor of communications at American University. “You can feel it. A few years ago to suggest limiting tech for kids would have sounded alarmist, and now that’s changing.”
“It’s unfair to children and deceptive the way the ads are structured into the play,” Dr. Montgomery said. “The F.T.C. is one of the only regulatory agencies able to do something about it, and we’re seeing this issue is having a very bipartisan reach.”
While other studies of children and games usually focused on the top rated or recommended apps, Dr. Radesky chose to study the ones with the most downloads. Many of those were free apps, and she found those had the most alarming advertising.
“Those were the ones that my low-income patients download the most,” she said.
To Dr. Radesky, this bombardment of advertising undercuts most of the educational content an app may include.
“There’s very limited research showing how children learn from interactive media,” she said. “But the one thing that’s consistent is if you have lots of distracting bells and whistles, children don’t comprehend the underlying learning material as well.”
Some of it became personal.
Midway through the study, Dr. Radesky let her son play one of the games — based on “Masha and the Bear,” a very popular Russian animated series — which lets children watch videos and play related games. Something strange popped up.
“It was a really creepy cartoon version of Donald Trump trying to resist pressing a big red nuke button,” Dr. Radesky said. “My son got upset at the cartoon cause he was like, ‘Wait does Trump actually have a button like that in his office?’ and I was like, ‘Oh great, now I need to explain this.’”
She hopes the study will lead parents to ask more questions about the games their kids are playing. And she hopes it leads to regulation, though she suspects that will be a harder battle.
“The hardest argument to make when you live in the U.S. is that children’s rights should be higher than the rights of advertisers or companies who want access to them,” she said. “Kids make a lot of money — they are demanding, and they are very susceptible.”
With additional reporting by Doris Burke.