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Advertisers can target children through ads on popular apps

A new study led by the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital has revealed how often children are targeted by advertisers while playing with their favorite apps. Of the most commonly downloaded educational and gaming apps marketed to children ages five and under, 95 percent contain at least one type of advertising.

The investigation, which is the first of its kind to examine the prevalence of advertising in children’s apps, was focused on 135 different apps.

The researchers found frequent interruptions by pop-up video ads, distracting banner ads, and persuasion by commercial characters to make in-app purchases. In addition, some of the content among the apps was found to be misleading and was not age appropriate.

Study senior author Dr. Jenny Radesky is a developmental behavioral expert and pediatrician at Mott Children’s Hospital.

“With young children now using mobile devices on an average of one hour a day, it’s important to understand how this type of commercial exposure may impact children’s health and well-being,” said Dr. Radesky.

The team found high rates of mobile advertising that was both disruptive and deceptive. In some cases, exposure to ads even exceeded the time spent enjoying the app or playing the game.

“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,” said Dr. Radesky. “This has important implications for advertising regulation, the ethics of child app design, as well as how parents discern which children’s apps are worth downloading.”

While 100 percent of the free apps surveyed contained advertising content compared to 88 percent of purchased apps, the ads occurred at similar rates in both types of apps categorized as educational.

Ad videos that interrupted play were prevalent in more than a third of all apps and in more than half of all free apps. In-app purchases were also present in a third of all apps, and in 41 percent of all free apps.

The study authors pointed to prior research which found that children under the age of eight cannot distinguish between media content and advertising, and that fewer regulations apply to advertising in apps than on television, which raises many ethical questions surrounding the practice.

“Commercial influences may negatively impact children’s play and creativity,” said Dr. Radesky. “Digital-based advertising is more personalized, on-demand and embedded within interactive mobile devices, and children may think it’s just part of the game.”

“We hope further research will help us better understand the consequences of digital media advertisement, which hasn’t caught up with the rapid growth of digital media products catered to children.”

Based on the findings of this study, child consumer advocacy groups led by Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood plan to file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission.

The study is published in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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