Majority of apps targeted at kids contain ads – US study

By June Shannon Policy News   |   1st Nov 2018

Parents may not realise that their children are being targeted by advertisers

A new US study has found that 95 per cent of commonly downloaded apps marketed to or played by children aged 5 and under, contain at least one form of advertising.

The study, by researchers at the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in the US, reviewed 135 different apps and found that play was frequently interrupted by pop-up video ads, persuasion by commercial characters to make in-app purchases to enhance the game experience and overt banner ads that could be distracting, misleading and not always age-appropriate.

“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 senior author Dr Jenny Radesky, a developmental behavioural expert and paediatrician at Mott Children’s Hospital.

Dr Radesky said her team found high rates of mobile advertising through manipulative and disruptive methods, with exposure to ads even surpassing time spent playing the game in some cases.

“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,” she said.

"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".

Dr Jenny Radesky, developmental behavioural expert and paediatrician , University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children's Hospital , USA

As part of the study researchers detailed experiences with advertisements during gameplay of the most popular children’s apps.

Although 100 per cent of surveyed free apps contained advertising content (compared to 88 per cent of purchased apps), the ads occurred at similar rates in both types of apps categorised as educational.

Ad videos interrupting play were prevalent in more than a third of all analysed apps and in more than half of free apps. In-app purchases were also present in a third of all apps, and in 41 per cent of all free apps.

This discrepancy worries Dr Radesky: “I’m concerned about digital disparities, as children from lower-income families are more likely to play free apps, which are packed with more distracting and persuasive ads.”

According to the study, some ads were particularly deceptive as familiar commercial characters would appear on-screen to remind players that paying for certain in-app upgrades and purchases would make the game more fun.

Overt banner ads covering the sides or top and/or bottom of the screen during gameplay were also present in 17 per cent of all apps and 27 per cent of free apps. Some banners promoted adult-appropriate apps that required a user to watch the full promo before a box could be closed.

Authors noted that prior research has found that children aged 8 and younger could not distinguish between media content and advertising — and that fewer regulations apply to advertising in apps than on television — which they said raises further ethical questions around the practice.

“We know there is a causal link between junk food marketing to children and childhood obesity,"

Helena O’Donnell, Project Manager, Stop Targeting Kids campaign, The Irish Heart Foundation

“Commercial influences may negatively impact children’s play and creativity,” Dr Radesky said. “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.”

Commenting on the study, Helena O’Donnell, Project Manager, Stop Targeting Kids campaign, The Irish Heart Foundation said, the digital world has allowed junk brands unregulated access to children, pestering them relentlessly in school, at home, even in their bedrooms through their smart phones.

“It’s called the ‘brand in the hand’ and gives marketers constant access to children. The explosion in digital marketing is personalised, effective and potentially more damaging, but only subject to voluntary codes of conduct in Ireland with no penalties or obligations.”

Based on its own research, The Irish Heart Foundation is calling for a complete ban on advertising to children under the age of 16 with its ‘Stop Targeting Kids’ campaign.

“We know there is a causal link between junk food marketing to children and childhood obesity. With one in four children overweight or obese the Irish Heart Foundation is running a petition calling on the Irish government to protect children in the digital world and to ensure government policy addresses childhood obesity,” Ms O Donnell added.

This study was published in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics.

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