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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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There’s risk of children clicking an ad and making an erroneous purchase. In 2014, the Federal Trade Commission responded to these purchases by filing federal lawsuits against Apple, Google and Amazon for allowing children to spend millions of dollars on in-app purchases. Apple and Google each settled that year; Google refunded at least $19 million to customers and Apple refunded at least $32.5 million. Amazon battled the lawsuit in court until 2017, when it dropped its appeal. Now, Amazon must refund customers approximately $70 million.

The FTC can’t decide what is and isn’t ethical, only what’s unfair or deceptive. Mary Koelbel Engle, associate director for advertising practices at the FTC, says that the organization has a policy statement on what constitutes deceptive or unfair practices. If something is deceptive or unfair, they can file a federal lawsuit or an administrative cease-and-desist order. The main question of deception: Is this practice likely to mislead reasonable consumers about something important? The question of unfairness: Will the practice cause injury to consumers that they can’t avoid? 

“When you’re talking about advertising to children, you look at it from the standpoint of an ordinary child and understanding that kids obviously are less sophisticated than adults,” Engle says. 

But if young children are less sophisticated consumers, not knowing where games end and ads begin, it may not be ethical to advertise to them on apps at all.

A Brief History of Tiny Targeting 

It’s always been considered ethically murky to target young children with ads. In 1984, Lynda Sharp Paine wrote in Business & Professional Ethics Journal that advertising is justified if it helps consumers make wise decisions in the marketplace, but she argued that young children don’t yet have the capacity to make wise decisions. In the 2000s, many studies concluded that childhood obesity was tied in part to ads for snacks, sodas and sugary cereals—most companies cut down on advertising sugary cereals, and later cut down on the sugar content of the products themselves. But as the media landscape changed, so did advertising to children. 

On smaller screens, parental oversight became tougher and apps took advantage. In 2017, researchers wrote in the journal Pediatrics that online ads are more aggressive in engaging with children through gaming platforms and more aggressive about telling children to reach out to their friends about advertised products. A 2018 study led by University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital and published in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics found that 95% of apps marketed to or commonly played by children younger than 5 contain at least one type of advertising. Another 2018 study, published in the journal Proceedings on Privacy Enhancing Technologies​, examined thousands of free apps targeting children and found that the majority were in violation of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), a federal law passed in 1998 to protect the online privacy of children 13 years old and younger. Most of the apps targeting young children don’t allow users to easily shut off tracking and behavioral advertising, the study found. Worse, 19% of these apps collect personally identifiable information, leaving children’s data at risk.  

“It’s hard to enforce the law, but again: These are apps for kids where they’re clearly trying to better target advertisements to these kids,” Robb says. “In doing so, they’re hoovering up lots of information that they shouldn’t be collecting, parents probably aren’t aware that they’re collecting and kids certainly aren’t aware that they’re collecting.”

Many free apps also offer in-app purchases for digital items to be used in the game. The “Strawberry Shortcake Bake Shop” app, for example, is listed as appropriate for ages 4 and older, but features $45 worth of in-app purchases. Robb says that the game asks kids to help the character bake a cake, but it can’t be completed until they buy a special utensil. In the meantime, he says that the app’s character makes a frowny face and looks pleadingly at the screen. 

“That, to me, is emotionally manipulative,” Robb says. “Trying to extract that stuff from games will be a step forward.”

What’s Fair?

“The question is, how ethical is it to take advantage of young children’s limited cognitive abilities while they’re playing an app they enjoy in order to sell them something?” Robb said during a November 2018 press conference held by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. During the press conference, Blumenthal said that parents who allow their children to play with these apps are opening their homes to “a Trojan horse.” In a letter to the FTC, Blumenthal and Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., asked the FTC to investigate how children are targeted by free apps. Specifically, the senators want to know to what extent developers, advertisers and app stores comply with COPPA.

“I think that the FTC letter was a really good first step,” Robb says two days after speaking at the press conference. “There probably needs to be more discussion between industry and the child development experts about what kids know and at what ages [they know it].”

Robb also believes that new research should examine what’s fair for kids in advertising. Should it be easier for kids to take app gameplay offline, away from the reach of advertisers and data collectors? Do ads in apps need to be clearly marked, just as ads during Saturday morning cartoon commercials were? Perhaps there can be an agreed-upon framework by the advertising industry, app stores and childhood development experts, Robb says. This way, everyone can know what kids’ rights are when it comes to online and mobile experiences.

“A lot of people who make games or experiences for children aren’t necessarily child development experts, so they may not even realize that they are unfairly manipulating or preying on a child’s psychological vulnerabilities,” Robb says. “And then there’s probably a lot of game designers who don’t care. It’s their business and maybe they don’t think it’s particularly harmful or it’s just what the bottom line is.”

Until advertisers and game developers address the problem, it falls to parents. Robb says that parents should try to play on the apps with their kids, teaching them what ads are when they pop up; he says that the most important learning happens between the child and their caregiver. Parents may also consider avoiding free apps for their children—those most ad-ridden—and instead pay a buck or two for the app’s uninterrupted premium version.  

Changes to app-based advertising to kids will likely come with time, whether from within the app and advertising industries or from pressure outside. But the industry is still adjusting to the changes wreaked by easy access, shrinking screens and advancing technology. FTC’s Engle, who has worked in her role since 2001, says that the business is much different than it was when she was sending her teenage daughter into a TV- and computer-free bedroom. Now, kids almost always have a tiny screen within reach, an open window to the world. For now, what floats into those windows is largely up to app stores, game developers and advertisers.

Hal Conick is a freelance writer for the AMA’s magazines and e-newsletters. He can be reached at halconick@gmail.com or on Twitter at @HalConick.