Whilst we might think a lot about the content of an app before we download it onto a device, we don’t always think about the advertising that exists within those apps, and how effective they may be at grabbing our kids attention.
We know that the preschool/toddler category is the most popular category in the App Store, making up 72% of the top paid apps. Many of those apps are great, many more are likely not so great, and some are pretty rubbish. We can safely say however, that handing over devices to younger kids, is fast becoming one of the ‘go to’ ways to avoid a tantrum, provide distraction, counter boredom or just allow mum enough time to stir the cheese sauce. And sure, for short periods of time, that can certainly be a life saver.
But we also know that not all screentime is equal and the effects of technology on our kids, good or bad, is hugely related to the type of content they are viewing. And as we are now seeing, there is more than just the content of the app or game, that is hankering for our kids attention.
Because whether paid or free, and whether high quality or not, you will find that these apps are rampant with advertising, and some pretty manipulative pulls for the continuous swiping and clicking of those little fingers and the curiosity of that developing brain.
A 2018 study from the university of Michigan, found that 95% of reviewed apps for children under 5 had at least one form of advertising. For free apps, that figure was 100%.
So what does it mean for those young minds when they are subject to a world of advertising and other features that entice them to buy and upgrade?
This study found that playing a simple game, or learning their alphabet or counting their numbers was frequently interrupted with an advertisement, sometimes featuring for longer than the actual game. They also sometimes prevent the game from continuing until the ad or video is complete. Whilst it may be said that these companies need to make their money, the targeting of these ads at young people, often with overt and inappropriate banner ads that are not made for their age group, becomes a question of ethics. Roulette wheels and gambling themes are also not uncommon.
In app purchases
In app purchases were also present in one third of all apps and in 41% of paid apps. Obviously we would want to ensure that we have set up our devices to prevent in app purchases being made and avoiding any shocks on the credit card. This is something that needs to be monitored as they get into older games too. Many a parent has been struck with exorbitant costs of Fortnite outfits, VBucks and the buying of extra loot on games such as Apex Legends. Then of course there are the scammers who direct them to their dodgy sites for further financial pain.
Sharing of information
Some apps were found to ask players to share their results with social networks, to review or give ratings and some even asked for their location.
There are even apps now that ask a child to purchase new tokens or pay to get to a next level, or open another band of play and then respond with a sad face emoji when they refuse to take them up on the offer. They also frequently give them glimpses of other levels or more exciting elements of the game they would have access to, should they go ahead and make the purchase.
We know that children have always been subject to advertising on television. And that too was criticised for leaving them pining for the latest toy or unhealthy snack. But when it comes to advertising on television, each advertisement is given a rating and must comply to strict policy on where they can be placed and in which programmes they can appear according to that rating. There are much fewer regulations around app advertising.
Until we can guarantee better ethical scrutiny around online advertising, until the research on the effects of digital advertising catches up to the rapid saturation, then we need to be more mindful of what apps our kids are using and how they process the constant bombardment of advertisements.
Because the concern with all this advertising and sad faced emoji’s when we don’t comply with the upsell, is that our children do not yet have the cognitive ability to differentiate the play and the content of the app, from the advertisement. Preschoolers and primary age kids simply don’t have the ability to understand or recognise that the collecting of tokens and coins, and the requests to make in app purchases, are all part of a higher, ulterior motive. We certainly want to be teaching our kids the critical thinking about the language used in advertisements, what not to click on, what makes something advertising etc. This however, is a level of thinking that even many adults are not particularly skilled at and frequently get sucked in to making unwanted purchases. Now of course, some advertisements do alert us to goods or services that we may like to purchase or that help us solve a problem. But I am not so sure this is the case when our littlest of kids are being targeted.
What can we do?
- Monitor the apps our youngest kids are playing, play it first yourself so you know what is being offered up to your child.
- Read independent reviews, not just the ones in the App Store. Commonsense.org as well as filtering systems like Family Zone will alert you to in app purchasing or other hidden features.
- If there are advertisements on your child’s favourite games, make sure you have the conversation with them about purchasing things, selling, marketing, gambling etc at an age appropriate level.
- Stick to paid apps. Free apps still need to make some money so they will likely do it in more deceptive ways.
- Check your settings to make sure you are not going to have any surprises when it comes to in app purchases.
- Hope that the industry will be forced to implement changes at the design stage and be more stringent in their advertising ethics in the future.
As I am often want to say, this world is not going anywhere and changes for the better do happen….they just take some time.
Until then, lets be monitoring, let’s mentor and let’s be mindful about the apps our kids are using and the influences we allow them to have or not to have.