Report: Apps for Kids Contain Dubious, Unsuitable Ads

John Lister's picture

Apps aimed at very young children are a "wild west" of dubious advertising according to the author of a new study. Jenny Radesky of the University of Michigan's CS Mott Children's Hospital said the advertising was often manipulative.

The researchers looked at 135 Android apps played by children, including the 96 most downloaded from the Google Play store in the "5 And Under" category.

Their headline finding was that 95 percent contained at least one form of advertising. That's arguably a little misleading as this includes 42 percent of the apps featuring a commercial character such as one from a TV show.

Buy Or The Puppy Looks Sad

However, in some cases the advertisements were ethically dubious.

The report highlighted one game where the characters showed a disappointed expression if the player chose not to select a locked item that required an in-app purchase. In another game, one of the characters explicitly told players that the "tools" available to purchase were better than the standard ones that came free with the game.

Manipulation in design was a common theme. Examples included on-screen ads with a cross to close the window that was so small that it was easy to unintentionally tap somewhere else and open up a screen that allowed additional purchases.

Even where ads were of a more traditional and clear nature, the study still found problems. In some cases, the sheer frequency was excessive. In one game, the player had to sit through advertisements equal to the amount of time playing the game. In other cases, the nature of the ads was particularly inappropriate for a child audience, including one for treatments for bipolar disorder.

'Educational' Apps Not Haven From Ads

The study also found there was no difference in the level of advertising between apps labeled as "educational" and other types of apps. The researchers say that could make it harder for parents to vet apps for suitability. (Source:

Because the report covered such a wide range of issues, it's not a simple case as to whether any of the games broke app store guidelines or the law. However, the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood has written to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) asking it to investigate the topic. (Source:

What's Your Opinion?

Do you have young children or grandchildren who play apps with advertising? What do you consider acceptable or unacceptable practices in such ads? Should app stores place an outright ban on ads in apps explicitly aimed at young children?

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Dennis Faas's picture

Here's a pro tip: if an app contains a lot of advertisements (whether full screen or on screen) you can turn on "airplane mode" on the smartphone or tablet. This will effectively disable WiFi, Data and Bluetooth - which also disables advertisements completely (most of the time). Unfortunately, this will only get you so far, as many games require a constant connection to the Internet.

Recently, my daughter had an app called "Monster Messenger" installed on her Android tablet, which she used to communicate with my wife. The app worked fine for about a month of intermittent use, but suddenly started displaying the same advertisement every two minutes. This went on for more than 30 minutes. My daughter was clearly annoyed having to see the same ad so often, but still wanted to keep using the app to "text mamma".

I quickly uninstalled the app because there was clearly something wrong. I also did a search that day for "Monster Messenger" in the Google Play store (and even today) and it seems to have been removed. I can only imagine that the app was hacked to display that many ads in such a short time. There is no way anyone in there right mind would willingly sit through the same ad being served every two minutes for the "privilege" of using the app for free.