The majority of apps preschool-aged children use are designed to make money off their digital experiences, a new study suggests.
And children whose parents had lower education were more likely to use apps incorporating manipulative methods that increase advertising exposure, such as by keeping them playing games longer or encouraging in-app purchases.
Researchers analyzed apps used by 160 children ages three to five and looked for what some experts have called “dark patterns,” or tricks aimed to prolong gameplay, prompt children to re-engage with the app, exert purchase pressure, or make them watch ads. The findings appear in JAMA Network Open.
Four in five apps used such manipulative designs—and they were most prevalent in apps used by children from households whose parents had lower education levels than children whose parents had graduated from college. Such tactics were also most prevalent in apps categorized as “general audience.”
Examples of such designs:
- 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.
Almost all children (nearly 99%) had at least one manipulative design in one of their top-used apps.
Authors note that an app’s success is often based on metrics such as how long and often users engage with them, which is likely behind design tricks that aim to achieve such goals.
But young children may not be able to identify these tricks, such as distinguishing between a screen intended to sell something versus being part of their game or recognize that time pressures are fabricated.
“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,” said lead author Jenny Radesky M.D., a developmental behavioral pediatrician at University of Michigan Health C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital and researcher at Michigan Medicine. “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.”
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