University of Michigan study: Young children exposed to sneaky ads, profit tactics in apps

A child uses an iPad. (Pixabay)

ANN ARBOR – The majority of games and apps preschool-aged children use contain advertisements and are designed to profit from their digital experiences, according to a new study by the University of Michigan.

Researchers said children from low-income homes and who have lower education parents are more likely to use apps that use manipulative methods to encourage in-app purchases or to keep them playing longer in order to increase their exposure to ads.

“Our findings suggest that design features created to serve the interests of technology companies over children is common and we need more regulations in place,” lead author Jenny Radesky, a developmental behavioral pediatrician at U-M’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital and researcher at Michigan Medicine said in a statement.

“These design tricks disproportionately occur in apps used by children from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds, suggesting inequities in how young children’s attention is exploited for monetization.”

For the study, researchers looked for what some call “dark patterns” in apps used by 160 three- to five-year-olds. “Dark patterns” refer to tricks to extend play time, pressure to make purchases, prompts to re-engage with the app and make children watch ads.

They found the majority of apps -- or four in five -- used manipulative models, and were used predominantly by children whose parents with lower education levels than those whose parents earned a college degree.

Examples of manipulative designs, according to a U-M release:

  • Pop-up messages, such as “Come back tomorrow and get a dragon” to entice return to game playing or “You can play with these cute tiny animals for a small fee. Just ask your parents” to encourage in-app purchases.
  • Characters saying things like “Don’t just stand there, do something!” when children are idle, to keep them playing.
  • Prompts to sign up for free trials of a paid version of the app showing a character crying when the child has not followed the prompt.
  • Character yelling “save me!” with fabricated time pressure from countdown clock, shown at a pause in the game to urge prolonged game use.
  • Using lures, such as stickers or trophies, to entice users to repeatedly engage with the app (i.e. earning daily rewards that accumulate).
  • Pop-up roadblock advertisements that stay up for 20 seconds prompting player to interact with it before the “X” appears to close out the ad.

Nearly 99% of children in the study encountered at least one manipulative model in one of their most-used apps.

The researchers said that metrics like time spent playing are often used to measure an app’s success, which likely contributes to design tricks.

They said young children might not be able to recognize the tricks, such as telling the difference between a screen signaling a time pressure in their game versus a screen that is selling something.

“Children love their favorite media characters, so they may be particularly susceptible to pressure from them, or by virtual rewards flashed across the screen every time they are at a point when they might choose to disengage from the app,” Radesky said in a statement. “Adult users might expect to be targeted by ads through apps on digital devices.

“But children are too young to understand this type of persuasive design that disrupts their game playing. Parents often say their children refuse to hand over devices when it’s time to do something else – like come to dinner or get ready for bed – and the gameplay-prolonging design tricks we found are likely contributing to this avoidable source of family stress.”

The study’s authors said their findings should encourage further regulation from industry leaders and the government to prioritize children’s wellbeing before products hit the market.

“Children are avid users of the digital world, and deserve access to its opportunities without having to navigate the glut of profit-centered design that currently dominates the market,” Radesky said. “Through initiatives like Designed with Kids in Mind, we have the chance to encourage lawmakers to pass legislation that holds industry accountable for considering children’s best interests, which includes eliminating manipulative design.”

To read the full study, click here.

About the Author:

Meredith has worked for WDIV since August 2017 and was voted one of Washtenaw County's best journalists in 2019 by eCurrent's readers. She covers the community of Ann Arbor and has a Master's degree in International Broadcast Journalism from City University London, UK.