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.”