Children Are Getting Great Practice at Being Sold to All the Time

A recent study determined that “manipulative and disruptive” advertising is the norm on apps for kids.

A young child plays with a phone while his brother drinks juice.
Sergei Supinsky / Getty

When young children are playing on smartphones, many parents have low expectations for what’s on the screen: bright colors, loud noises, a general lack of any greater moral lesson. A study released earlier this week, unfortunately, adds to that list: It found that the most frequently downloaded apps aimed at children ages 5 and under—even those categorized as “educational” and even ones that cost money—contain loads of advertising.

After testing 135 apps, the researchers, most of whom are affiliated with the University of Michigan, expressed concern about the “manipulative and disruptive methods” that advertisers and app makers were using to influence very young children. The main types of marketing the researchers encountered were “commercial characters” (that is, characters from toys or cartoons being featured in a game), videos interrupting game play, and nudges to rate the app, make an in-app purchase, or promote the app on social media. And about a quarter of the free apps had regular old banner ads, some of which were pushing things that clearly weren’t intended for the 5-and-under crowd: a shopping app, information about bipolar disorder, help with tax prep.

“I think the targeting of children in this way, and the manipulative ways in which they do it, is really abominable,” says Mara Einstein, the chair of media studies at Queens College and the author of Advertising: What Everyone Needs to Know. Her main concern is that young children have difficulty recognizing what’s an ad and what isn’t. She says that among marketers, this understanding is “really standard stuff, and the fact that it’s not being applied in the app space is pretty disturbing.”

Another issue she raised is that ads on phones are something that kids generally encounter on their own, without any parental guidance. “There are plenty of parents that use the TV as a babysitter as well, but there was at least the option to sit down with your kid and say, ‘Well, what do you think about that?’” Einstein says. Little faces staring into little screens, though, are usually unsupervised, which “doesn’t give a whole lot of opportunity for the parent to look at this with the kid and know what’s going on.”

The Federal Communications Commission regulates ads that run on TV during children’s shows, but it has no such rules for ads directed toward children online or within apps. One practice that’s banned by the FCC in TV ads is “host selling,” which happens when a character from a show pitches a product during that show’s commercial breaks. The researchers noted that some of what they’d seen in children’s apps was very similar to host selling: Some characters steered players toward making in-app purchases or buying the paid version of an app, occasionally making emotional pleas or expressing disapproval through the screen. (In one app for kids as young as 6, an onscreen character can shake his head and cry when a child declines to purchase a mini game for $1.99.)

These negative reactions from characters can pressure children to spend, and the underlying concern, says Amy Jordan, a professor of journalism and media studies at Rutgers, is that many kids aren’t yet capable of fully understanding other people’s motives for making certain requests. She told me that it isn’t until around age 6 or 7, give or take a year in either direction, that kids develop the ability to think critically about what an advertiser might want from them.

The FCC does have regulations, but much of the policing of advertisers comes, Jordan says, when there’s public outcry or after a particularly damning research report comes out. Many other countries regulate advertisers more tightly. “On balance, there is probably a greater recognition [in the U.S.] of the free-speech rights of the commercial broadcasters and an unwillingness to interfere with those rights,” she says. “In other countries, there’s more of a sense of the obligations of people who make media to recognize the sensitivities and the vulnerabilities of children.” Jordan notes that in Denmark, ads can’t be aired in the middle of children’s programming, but instead can only bookend it.

I asked her what her dream regulations for children’s advertisements would look like. “If I were queen,” she said, “I would ban advertising to very young children—that would be children ages about 6 and under. And I would be careful about the kinds of products that are advertised to children between 6 and 12, so that unhealthy products aren’t advertised to them, and at the same time, throughout the childhood years, I would invest as a policy maker in initiatives to provide more media literacy.”

There is a bigger-picture perspective to consider on the bombardment of advertising that kids face in apps. Regulating smartphone advertising would be one step to take, but there is still the question of what it is that the ads are distracting kids from in the first place—often the “enrichment” an app is providing kids can be questionable. The authors of a 2015 paper noted that many apps considered “educational” didn’t teach in the way that children actually learn; the researchers wrote that children exposed to this sea of unregulated apps are the subjects of “a vast, unplanned experiment.” Given how few adults are able to resist the attention-sucking powers of app designers and advertisers, how can kids possibly stand a chance?