In college, students are finding apps for anything — deals on food, study tools and more. But as technology starts reaching younger audiences, advertisers have begun tapping into the new mobile market, resulting in what University researchers say is harmful exposure. Mobile applications geared toward children contain significant disruptive, often inappropriate, advertising content, University of Michigan researcher Jenny Radesky, a pediatrician, and her team found after analyzing 135 of the most popular free and paid apps for children 5 years old and younger. She began the project with the goal of simply analyzing the prevalence and structure of childhood apps when she became concerned about the advertising content and its impact on the audience of children. The team had researchers explore the apps and evaluate their advertisements in categories such as pop-up ad videos, in-app purchases or prompts to rate the app.

 “The reason I care about it as a developmental behavioral pediatrician is the distraction caused by advertising in apps can lead to a less meaningful experience when a child is engaging with the app,” Radesky said. “I am not only concerned about the distracting nature of ads, but we also found ads that are inappropriate for children.”

Radesky said the study uncovered potentially unethical advertising for young children, as children ages six to eight may not be able to recognize and distinguish advertisements from the app itself. According to Radesky, those concepts are too abstract for children of that age to understand. In their analysis, the team tracked advertising that manipulated children to tap or download certain programs and collected data from the device.

“I think the majority of apps on the market for young kids are not going to be helpful, necessarily,” Radesky said. “Most of them have not been proven to be educational even if they are labeled educational. It winds up becoming not helpful (to the child) and in some cases potentially harmful.”

They also noticed some advertisements in apps that were not age-appropriate, including violent of political ads, potentially doing damage to the child. While many apps are categorized as educational, Radesky said apps could actually introduce children to unexpected content.

LSA junior Kendra Nash, a psychology student who works in a school with young children, has concerns about the influence of inappropriate advertisements on children.

“Screens are becoming a pseudo-babysitter for many children and they can have harmful side effects,” Nash said. “This is especially an issue because phones store information and display ads that might be appropriate for adults, but not for the children who are using their parents’ phones.”

Nash spent her summer working in an autism center that advocated for technology use. She said with YouTube becoming increasingly popular for kids, limiting their exposure to inappropriate content is difficult.

“The autism center I worked at … allowed and even encouraged the children as young as four to use phones,” Nash said. “The staff were basically told that we can’t restrict their access to videos at camp because they have access to it at home and we can’t disrupt their routines.”

Radesky noted there are some well-crafted apps developed for children, such as the apps for Sesame Street and PBS Kids, but many are not free. She categorized most apps as “gamified play experience” and said children can have better experiences in the real world.

“What I do find with many of my patients is the parents let the child download what they want,” Radesky said. “Our study suggests that could lead to a lot of low-quality free apps that collect data from the device or bombard the child with lots of advertisements.”

Radesky said it’s possible the advertising elements in apps can impose a high cognitive load on children when they pay attention to fast-paced media. According to Radesky, children struggle to focus and have lower executive functioning and impulse control after consumption of this type of media.

LSA junior Marisa Meyer joined Radesky’s study as a research assistant because she wanted to better understand and improve childhood media.

“There’s a widespread acceptance of children’s apps, without a real understanding of what’s included in these apps,” Meyer wrote in an email interview. “I was interested in learning more about its presence in early childhood, and wanted to contribute to a study that can help improve children’s media environment.”

Meyer said children use mobile devices for about one hour per day, on average. The study revealed 95 percent of the apps studied in the age five and under category contained at least one type of advertising, and 100 percent of free apps contained advertising as opposed to the 88 percent of purchased apps.

“We’re concerned this demonstrates a larger discrepancy in the content and quality of free versus paid app, negatively affecting children from lower-income families who are more likely to play free apps overloaded with more distracting and persuasive ads,” Meyer wrote.

Radesky has discussed her study with consumer advocacy groups and encourages advertisement regulation on apps similar to the advertising regulation on television geared toward children.

“There was a strong consensus that our results suggested there needs to be change within the regulation of children’s apps,” Radesky said. “We suggest there needs to be more vetting by the app stores before they put apps into those family-friendly areas so they are not giving parents a false sense of security.”

Radesky said the study made her think about the larger failings of accepted approaches to designing media for children’s consumption.

“The study has made me step back and think about how the digital environment for children has been designed as if children were little adults,” Radesky said. “I think we need to have a different approach and a different paradigm when we are thinking about designing technology for children.”

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