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Popular Kids’ Apps are Filled With ‘Manipulative’ and ‘Distracting’ Ads: REPORT

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A new study shows that advertising in apps for young children may be far more prevalent than parents and caregivers may realize.

According to a new study from the pediatrics department of the University of Michigan Medical School (via Buzzfeed News), apps intended for children are “crammed” with ads, many of them disturbing, inappropriate and effectively impossible to dismiss.

The study, led by professor of pediatrics Jenny Radesky of the University of Michigan, found that nearly all of the 135 kids apps examined had ads. All of the free apps contained at least one type of advertising, as did 88 percent of paid apps. The type of ad varies between banner ads and traditional ads to camouflaged ads. Camouflaged ads are made to look like they belong in the game, but actually prompt ads when clicked.

For example, in Kids Animals Jigsaw Puzzle, pop-up ads appear when a player finishes a puzzle. Purchases are offered in Strawberry Shortcake Bake Shop, and characters visibly frown when those purchases are refused. And other apps have commercial characters, such as Hello Kitty, as objects of play, according to the study.

“Disguising ads as part of gameplay and using cartoon characters to manipulate children into making in-app purchases is not only unethical, but illegal,” says Josh Golin, the executive director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.

“Children are known to develop trusting, emotional parasocial relationships with media characters, and pay more attention to and learn better from familiar characters,” says Radesky. Using the characters in ads “is a misuse of parasocial relationships,” they said.

The researchers said some of the ad practices could break Federal Trade Commission rules around advertising to children and suggested that app stores need to be better gatekeepers when it comes to offering apps to kids.

“What we’re hoping is that the FTC will fine the app developers and fine them enough that it sends a clear message to the preschool app industry,” says Golin,whose group and 21 others signed a letter sent to the FTC today outlining their concerns, based largely on the new study’s findings.

“These apps routinely lure young children to make purchases and watch ads, though they are marketed to parents as appropriate for young children,” the letter reads. “As the research makes clear, these practices are unfair and deceptive to children and parents, and we urge the FTC to take appropriate and swift action.”

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