A recent study of 135 mobile apps aimed at the children’s market found that 95 percent of those aimed at preschoolers employed questionable advertising tactics to promote additional sales. The study, conducted by the University of Michigan and the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor, was released in late October.
Often characterized by their makers as educational apps, these typically colorful, animated programs appear innocuous and beneficial for parents. But this deeper look into app content, however, revealed an alarming landscape designed expressly to lure children into purchasing add-ons and additional products.
App distributors like Google Play and the iTunes store claim they impose rigid standards for apps marketed to the youth demographic. But the study’s authors found that while these regulations do restrict personal data collection and re-marketing efforts, they rarely address marketing within the app itself. In fact, the Michigan study’s lead author points out that many apps appear to be focused more on revenue generation than on providing a holistic or educational player experience. The learning activities are just window dressing masking the real intent — in-app sales.
App producers argue that their programs are providing education and entertainment for free. Advertising revenue and in-app sales are the only viable way for them to stay in business, they say, sometimes comparing what they do to children’s TV programming.
But unlike television advertising, where the demarcation between programming and advertisement is generally clear, the ads in gaming apps are camouflaged — designed to seem a seamless part of the play action. And in some cases, children are made to feel that their game performance is inadequate unless they interact with the marketing interruption. The Michigan study points out that young minds often lack the “meta-awareness” to distinguish between game content and marketing communications.
The report had an immediate impact on advocacy groups, 22 of which subsequently sent letters to the FTC asking for a review of marketing practices and safety guidelines for children’s mobile apps.
But even if stricter regulations are put in place, it’s up to parents to become more aware of the apps they are downloading for their children. What are concerned parents supposed to do? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Before downloading an app for your children, conduct a background check using a search engine. Research the app and ensure there aren’t any immediately obvious perils.
  • Watch for signals like references to “in-app purchases” on the download page and read the reviews to see if anyone has complained about the frequency and intensity of such purchase requests.
  • Once you download an app for your child, take the time to play through it yourself. Get a sense for how marketing and ad schemes are integrated into game play.
  • If you see something, or your child points something out, take it seriously and if necessary take action. Begin by warning other parents through a candid review on the app store, escalating it further, if appropriate, by notifying Apple or Google. Don’t hesitate to complain to the makers, and if what they’re doing seems illegal, report it to law enforcement.

Some app developers have sunk to very manipulative levels, and use deceptive practices to tap this most innocent of demographics. We need to safeguard our children against such excesses.
While it’s always preferable to let the marketplace and industry regulate themselves, Apple and Google have been ineffectual gatekeepers when it comes to protecting our children from unscrupulous advertising ploys. That leaves parents to pressure legislators, platform companies, and the app-makers themselves to address this issue.  Mobile apps geared towards children should not only be fun but genuinely educational, unmanipulative, and trustworthy.
Brian Byer is VP of Content & Commerce Practice at Blue Fountain Media, a digital marketing agency.