Young children use mobile and tablet devices for an average of two hours daily*. Most of their time is spent playing games or using entertainment or educational apps.

A recent study** published in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics reveals that 95% of the popular apps for children under the age 5, use manipulative and disruptive methods to advertise to kids within the apps. While traditional advertising like TV has restrictions, app companies run ads without any external regulation. A majority of these apps have been downloaded more than 10 million times each, with a few of them clocking in at 50 million downloads.

As part of the study carried out by researchers from the University of Michigan, led by Jenny Radesky, a developmental behavioral expert and pediatrician at the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, they reviewed 135 apps and found that almost all of them used frequent interruptions like banner ads, video ads, teasers and pop-ups. Some even use commercial characters to persuade kids to unlock items, make in-app purchases, rate the app and share on social media.

Many of the advertising methods used were covert, distracting and mislead children into taking actions. Often, ads were hidden within elements of the game. Another manipulative and deceptive method is using familiar characters that appear on-screen, constantly reminding or guilting them into taking an action.

The study reports, “For example, in-app purchases were often not only advertised clearly to children (e.g., by a row of locked games or items) but were also encouraged by familiar characters in the app. Because children are known to develop trusting, emotional parasocial relationships with media characters and pay more attention to and learn better from familiar characters, we suggest that this is a misuse of parasocial relationships. In some cases, app characters showed disapproval of the user or an important mission (such as rescuing characters) could not be accomplished without a purchase, which may also lead children to feel an emotionally charged need to make purchases.”

Research shows that children below the ages of 8 cannot distinguish media and advertising content. The study reports, “In other words, they lack a meta-awareness about advertising and are unable to critically reflect upon their reactions to it. When advertisements are combined with rewards, both cognitive and emotional processes respond to persuasion.”

According to the researchers, these apps that are being promoted as educational are in fact harmful and not beneficial to a child’s learning and development.

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*  The Common Sense Census: Media Use By Kids Age Zero To Eight

** Advertising in Young Children’s Apps, Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics

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