A group of adults meets in a restaurant. To chat quietly and prevent their children from running through the establishment or causing some fuss, they leave their mobile. This is a usual scene and one of the reasons why the number of children's applications in the market has skyrocketed. Children use their mobile phone for about an hour a day and their data is juicy for companies that create apps They intend to show them targeted advertising. Although children under eight are unable to differentiate advertising from other content, 95% of children's apps for children under five years of age in the Google Play Store contain ads, according to A study performed by researchers of the pediatric hospital C.S. Mott from the University of Michigan.
The research, published in the magazine Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, reveals that games are frequently interrupted by pop-ups with advertisements that are sometimes deceptive, distracting and not appropriate for children. The researchers tested the 135 most popular applications aimed at children under five in the Play Store. They chose the Google store instead of Apple because they used Android tablets to carry out the study. More than half of the mobiles in the United States have this operating system and many apps analyzed are also available in the App Store.
Previous research has evaluated the educational content of various children's applications. But there have been few studies on what advertisements include the apps intended for minors. Advertising, in addition to distracting children, can be harmful to health. "Advertising has been associated with unhealthy eating behaviors and obesity," explains Marisa Meyer, co-author of the study, to EL PAÍS.
100% of the apps analyzed analyzed contained ads against 88% of the payment. A Meyer, the results seem worrying: "This negatively affects children from low-income families who are more likely to play free apps full of more disturbing and persuasive ads."
"Advertising has been associated with unhealthy eating behavior and obesity," explains Marisa Meyer, co-author of the study.
In 35% of the total of analyzed apps -and in 54% of free apps- the game is interrupted by advertising videos that sometimes can not be closed immediately, but forces the user to see them whole. In addition, if you try to close them by pressing somewhere in the ad instead of in the "X", a window of Google Play opens to download another application. For Jenny Radesky, also co-author of the study, these ads are the most insidious: "The little 'X' does not appear for about 20 seconds, if you are two or three years old, you may think that the ad is part of the game. You can click on it and that will take you to the app store. "
The researchers also found misleading or inappropriate advertising for minors. For example, from applications for adults such as Wish, Samsung or apps to make the income statement. Radesky explains that an app had an ad to download a political game that showed "a cartoon of Donald Trump trying not to press the red button that will send nuclear weapons": "My son asked me: 'What are you talking about, are you going fly the world? "
Apps that encourage you to buy
46% of the analyzed applications show ads that encourage downloading the paid version of them to avoid advertising or unlock new levels. It is the case of My Caterpillar, an app in which you have to take care of a caterpillar, and whose paid version allows the animal to play with balloons or toys that are inaccessible in the free application.
In addition, 30% of the apps They encourage players to buy extra lives or pay to access more characters or locations. For example in Hello Kitty Lunchbox, the player can buy different foods or decorative items for the Hello Kitty food bag and in Masha and the bear educational games, most mini-games are blocked until the user buys them.
The protagonists of 65% of the analyzed applications were famous characters of franchises or cartoons. For example, the application Coloring Book for Hello Kitty consists of coloring Hello Kitty drawings or the game LEGO Duplo Town -which consists of building a community with houses, restaurants or parks- has a LEGO character as its protagonist. In The canine patrol, one of the characters of the famous series (Ryder) introduces the game and explains the steps that players must follow to complete each level.
The problem, the researchers point out, is that these characters are familiar to children, develop emotional and trusting relationships with them and pay more attention to what they tell them. If for example a character tells a child that a mission or rescue has not been carried out because a purchase has not been made, this can affect the child emotionally, according to the researchers.
In addition to prompting to spend money, 28% of the applications analyzed encourage the user to rate the app on Google Play and share your progress or scores on social networks like Facebook. Children are more susceptible than adults to ads, researchers say. Therefore, they argue that the way in which the paid version is promoted is "unethical".
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends the elimination of ads in applications aimed at children under the age of five. Researchers believe that legislation should be made because minors are not aware that their preferences are influenced. "A debate is needed on how to balance the needs of advertisers and the rights of children," the researchers explain in the study.
Meyer argues that app stores also play a critical role in child protection because they can make higher-quality applications more prominent and accessible for parents and children. The next research, he says, should analyze how children understand advertising on mobile phones, at what age they develop critical thinking to know when they try to persuade them and how parents can help train their children in this regard.
Some children's apps have permission to access the storage of the device, the camera, the location or even the microphone. The request for these permissions appears in a small tab when installing each application. But 88% of users accept the terms and conditions on the Internet without reading them, according to the Organization of Consumers and Users (OCU).
In addition, according to the researchers, they do not request the consent of the parents. Although according to the federal law that protects children in the United States, the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), it is prohibited to collect data on the location of minors, 4.4% of the apps analyzed request permission to know . Among them, Love2Learn, Edukitty, and Masha and the Bear.