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Many preschool apps are tricking kids into spending more time and money, study says

Researchers found some apps lure young children into making purchases or shame them into continuing to play.
That study analyzed the gaming apps on devices owned by 160 3- to 5-year olds.
That study analyzed the gaming apps on devices owned by 160 3- to 5-year olds. Getty Images/iStockphoto

If you haven’t taken a ‘test drive’ with your children’s game apps, you probably should. A recent study showed that four out of five game apps contain some form of software that tricks children into spending money or pressures them to continue play even when they’d prefer to be doing something else.

That study analyzed the gaming apps on devices owned by 160 3- to 5-year olds. The researchers found that with the help of appealing characters some apps would lure children into making purchases or would shame children into continuing play and to pick a time to come back.

The longer play continues, the more ads children watch and the more money the app developers make, explained the study’s lead author, Dr. Jenny Radesky, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital.

“Parents were often surprised, appalled and frustrated as they watched all the ads popping up,” Radesky said. “We wanted to demystify what was going on. It’s not the child’s fault. These apps are intentionally designed to keep the children clicking.”

The manipulative sections of software weren’t designed especially for kids, Radesky said. “Many developers just copied what was in adult apps and pasted them into the children’s apps,” she added.

The study notes that seemingly benign apps, like “ABC Animals,” which has a narrator who lures kids into spending money by saying “you can play with these cute animals for a tiny fee! Ask your parents!” turn out to be not so benign after all. 

Seemingly innocuous apps can fake parents into a false sense of security because embedded in those safe-looking apps can be ads for more disturbing games, like “Kick the Buddy,” which “encourages users to abuse a doll in all kinds of sick and twisted ways,” Radesky said. “That was one of the most popular apps in our study.”

Nearly 50% of apps used features like tunneling, in which no option is provided for the child to stop and go somewhere else, pop-ups or auto-advancing features that keep kids’ eyeballs glued to the screen, the study found. 

Kids are often encouraged to come back at specific times of the day so that play becomes habitual, said Joey Lee, director of the Games Research Lab at Columbia University’s Teachers College. Other tactics include scheduling play appointments and daily reward schedules “to build habits, social pressures and obligations,” he added.

The idea, Lee said, is to addict users, whether they are children or adults. “But it’s scary when it’s targeting children, the most vulnerable among us,” he added.

Another manipulative tactic is to use “loot boxes or other slot-machine like mechanics — which have been banned in some countries — to addict players by giving them the chance to obtain a rare, powerful item,” Lee said.

How can parents combat all that deceptive and manipulative software?

It’s similar to teaching your child to watch for traffic while crossing streets, said Dr. Eyal Shamesh, a professor of pediatrics and psychiatry and chief of the division of behavioral and developmental pediatrics at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

“You wouldn’t let a 4-year old learn to cross the street by themselves,” Shamesh said. “It’s a good idea to go with them and hold their hand so they understand how to do it.”

Similarly, “you should be spending some time with the game and seeing what it is and hopefully spending some time with your child playing with it,” Shamesh said.

Lara Putnam suggests parents proactively turn off some game features, such as the one that allows purchases be made inside the app. “Otherwise kids will be choosing to spend money and it will be billed to whatever credit card you gave to get the app,” said Putnam, the UCIS research professor in the department of history at the University of Pittsburgh and the co-lead of the Southwest PA Civic Resilience Initiative at the Pitt Disinfo Lab.

Test driving is the way to go, Putnam said. “And it shouldn’t be just one test drive,” she added. “There should be an initial one and then every few months sit with the kids while they’re playing to see what they are encountering as they get to the next level. If it looked innocuous at first you can’t assume it still is.”

Putnam suggests having calm, “low stakes” ongoing conversations about the apps. “Kids need to feel comfortable telling their parents if there’s something going on in the app that they are not sure of,” she said. You can tell your kids “even cool games can have stuff that’s not fair, like trying to trick you into spending money. You need to find an age appropriate way to teach them to be wary, but to still be able to trust you, their teachers and other trustworthy people in their lives.”