When we as parents hand over a phone or tablet to our young children to play apps and games, we might hope that at best they’ll learn something, at worst it will be a harmless distraction. But many parents probably don’t expect that, throughout your child’s game, advertisements will be vying for their attention.

When my research team started studying the advertising in apps marketed to young children, we mostly expected to see a few distractions: some banner ads, some prompts to upgrade to the full version for a few dollars. We didn’t expect to see so many examples of advertising.

Children are vulnerable to advertising. Kids under six to eight years old can’t tell ads from actual media content — I remember my younger son yelling that he wanted the vacuum TV show to come back on after seeing a vacuum ad when he was two! Kids also don’t understand (or can’t resist) the “persuasive intent” of the ad. Children enjoy playing games filled with their favorite characters, who they are then more likely to trust. In the study, we found that those characters sometimes encouraged in-app purchases, like one app where the character started crying if the user didn’t click on an in-app purchase!

Sometimes the ads were for shooter games or apps not appropriate for toddlers or preschoolers. Sometimes users could spend more time watching ads (to collect coins, candy or gameplay items) than playing the actual app.

Some apps had ads embedded within the gameplay, meaning that children were offered the opportunity to watch ads in order to gain more coins or tokens, get better items (for example, a faster tool that helps them play the game more easily) or unlock levels. This can lead to children watching many more ads than you’d expect, because they were motivated to get ahead in the game.

Not all apps had ads; the PBS KIDS apps were all ad-free. I regularly recommend the Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood apps to families with children who are struggling with tantrums and big emotions.

In reaction to this study, I’ve heard some parents say, “Well, that’s why I never let my kids play on mobile devices.” While that’s fine (and actually I’ve been enjoying more TV and movie time with my kids because they snuggle better and talk to me more when we’re all watching the same big screen!), there are also some benefits to look for in media and apps. When you and your child explore apps together, use it as an opportunity:

  • Talk to your kids about not just installing any app because it’s free, but looking up reviews together (like on Common Sense Media) and seeing if it’s a good match for what they like and what your rules are (e.g., no violence).
  • When you see an ad, dissect it. Try to see how that advertiser might be trying to change your mind or behavior.
  • When you see manipulative design (such as the character trying to get you to make purchases), teach your child why it’s unfair.
  • Realize that kids lack the critical thinking skills to understand these aspects of advertising, so you may just need to uninstall those apps.

But parents can’t be the only ones responsible for making this better. We are exhausted and have too much else to think about! We cannot be the only gatekeepers when design is undermining our ability to handle tech at home. The app stores, designers and advertising regulators have an important role to play too.

Doing this study really made me think about what children should expect from play, including digital play: a designer who understands their mind (and knows that they’re not just a little adult), an app that challenges them and gives them freedom (not just repetitive activities), and not being bombarded with ads or tricks.

About Jenny Radesky, M.D.

Dr. Radesky is an Assistant Professor of Developmental Behavioral Pediatrics at the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital. She received her M.D. from Harvard Medical School, trained in pediatrics at Seattle Children’s Hospital, and completed subspecialty training in developmental behavioral pediatrics at Boston Medical Center. Her research interests include use of mobile technology by parents and young children and how this relates to child self-regulation and parent-child interaction. Clinically, her work focuses on developmental and behavioral problems in low-income and underserved populations. She was lead author of the 2016 American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement on digital media use in early childhood.

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