So-called educational apps for kids are packed with commercials

WASHINGTON — Parents might be quick to cue up an educational app on their tablet or smartphone to soothe a crabby toddler, but a recent study from the University of Michigan shows that may not be such a great idea.

According to a study by Michigan Medicine published in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, 95 percent of the 135 apps the research team reviewed contained at least 1 advertisement targeting children.

The University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital found at least one type of advertising in 129 of the 135 apps designed for children aged 5-and-under. All of the free apps were supported by ads, and perhaps surprisingly, 88 percent of paid apps also included advertising aimed at young children.

The study also found many of the apps used popular characters to urge children to make in-app purchases, share something on social media, rate the app, watch an advertiser’s video to continue playing, or make a purchase to unlock a new level.

Jenny Radesky, a doctor from the C.S. Mott hospital, was a senior author of the study. She said young children are using mobile devices, on average, one hour per day.

“It’s important to understand how this type of commercial exposure may impact children’s health and well-being,” Radesky said.

She also called the apps marketed at young children “a wild west, with a lot of apps appearing more focused on making money than the child’s play experience.”

The tactics raise questions about the educational value of the apps and whether children are being manipulated. Some researchers raised questions about privacy, since some of the apps asked
for access to a microphone or camera.

The advocacy group Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood plans to file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission in an effort to implement more regulations for so-called educational apps aimed at young children.

Marisa Meyer, a researcher at the school and the study’s lead author, said the reason commercial content in educational apps aimed at children is concerning, is that: “parents may view apps that are marketed as educational as harmless and even beneficial to their child’s learning and development.”

As a result, Meyer said these educational apps need to be scrutinized even more than they already are.

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