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Game Apps Are the Latest Battleground in Child Advertising

Hal Conick

​Kids don’t often know the difference between games and ads; they don’t know about advertisers’ persuasive intent until 8 years old. Why, then, is it ethical to advertise in games meant for preschoolers?​​

When Michael Robb’s two kids, 4 and 6, play games on the family tablet, the games are occasionally interrupted by ads. Although they sometimes forget what to do, Robb trained them to look for a red X when ads pop up—short of that, they’ll turn the device face down until the ad ends. 

This isn’t how most kids interact with ads on apps: Developmentally, children don’t know where games end and ads begin until they’re 8 years old, according to the American Psychological Association. Robb says that kids don’t understand persuasive intent, the fact that advertisers are trying to sell them something. 

Robb has a Ph.D. in psychology and works as the senior director of research at Common Sense Media, an advocacy and education nonprofit supporting safe use of media and technology for children. He’s spent the last 15 years researching media’s effect on children and says that apps have made for a vastly different media landscape. Robb recalls how Saturday morning cartoon ads in the early 1970s would blend in with TV programming, which gave way later in the decade to clear demarcations that an ad break was coming (“After these messages, we’ll be right back!”). These show-bumpers were a mandate from the Federal Communications Commission’s 1974 Policy Statement, a compromise struck after advocacy group Action for Children’s Television requested in 1970 that no commercials air during programming for kids. But there’s no such bumper between ads and gameplay in free apps; Robb says that there should be, as kids playing free apps often think that ads are just another part of the game. 

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Hal Conick

Hal Conick is a staff writer for the AMA’s magazines and e-newsletters. He can be reached at hconick@ama.org or on Twitter at @HalConick.