Watchdogs Push For Probe Of Android Apps, Say They Hurt Children

Several children's rights groups penned a letter to the United States Federal Trade Commission that argues it's high time for Android apps targeted at the youngest demographic to be investigated. The Center for Digital Democracy, Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, and a number of other organizations are now pushing for a federal probe of what they deem are predatory practices aimed at conditioning American children to behave like adult consumers at the expense of their overall wellbeing. The advocacy groups described such activities as "unfair and deceptive," urging the FTC to react to them accordingly.

The bulk of the pro-investigation argument is based on a recent study authored by the University of Michigan Medical School. The paper titled "Advertising in Young Children’s Apps: A Content Analysis" scrutinizes 135 Android apps in total, including almost every one of the top 100 apps targeting children up to five years of age. Many of those are free and supported by ads but also have a paid version that they promote in an aggressive manner, encouraging children to make purchases, the research reveals. 95-percent of all examined apps serve advertisements, with a third of them promoting their own microtransactions, including virtual currency and other digital goods.

Besides misleading children, such practices also deceive parents, the watchdogs argue, suggesting adults never would have installed such apps and allowed their kids to use them if they weren't under the impression the experiences they offer are free. After convincing parents to install them under the pretense of being free, the apps end up consistently encouraging children to pay for digital items and/or ad-free experiences, the groups warned. The study itself draws attention to one of the most popular monetization techniques used by developers of freemium apps - incentivized ad watching. One particular example of the thereof pertains to Talking Tom, with the researchers describing how the mobile game would present players with a gift box that contains an opportunity to win digital prizes by watching ads. Besides being highly misleading, such practices are also normalizing ads to the point that children expect and even welcome them, the watchdogs allege, criticizing their developers from failing to point out that their creations contain advertising in their Google Play Store descriptions, and/or that it'll be practically impossible to enjoy the full experiences they offer without spending any money.

None of the developers mentioned by the study responded to the allegations and the research seemingly ignored the fact that Google itself labels apps that contain advertising and in-app purchases near the bottom of their Play Store listings and has been doing so for years. The FTC is under no obligation to respond to the investigation call and it's presently unclear whether it intends to do so, though the issue of software being harmful to children falls under the agency's purview.

Background: The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood has been one of the most vocal critics of the Silicon Valley in recent times, with its last high-profile attempt at raising concerns about children-focused marketing being an initiative aimed at putting an end to Messenger Kids, Facebook's communications service aimed at pre-teens. The sole fact that Facebook pushed for the youngest demographic to create social media accounts is alarming and requires resistance because premature exposure to social media is harmful to personalities that are still being developed, the group argued in January. CCFC also described Messenger Kids as Facebook's attempt to normalize low digital privacy expectations among pre-teens, essentially training them to become life-long customers of its other services which are monetized through targeted advertising. The initiative started before this year's Cambridge Analytica scandal but Messenger Kids is still operational, with its Android version being installed over a million times, according to its Google Play Store listing.

CCFC sees commercials as a major threat to children's wellbeing, with the organization estimating that companies spend some $17 billion marketing to the youngest demographic every year. Despite the fact that American children under eight see thousands of commercials annually on TV alone, they don't understand the persuasive nature of such promotions and most are incapable of differentiating between marketing and program content, the watchdog argues. The organization is quick to point out that advertising isn't just harmful to children because it pushes products and brands on them but also promotes certain behaviors and values. Materialism, lack of creativity, eating disorders, violence, child obesity, and a number of other issues are all being linked to the increasingly aggressive childhood commercialization, according to the group. As the world is becoming more connected by the day, the number of channels that could potentially be used to push advertising to children is increasing in an exponential manner and more regulatory oversight is hence a necessity, CCFC concludes.

Impact: While the new investigation doesn't target Google per se, it's directly related to its flagship product and comes following a string of relevant accusations against Alphabet's subsidiary itself. Last month, New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas sued Google for illegal tracking of children, describing a scenario that's extremely similar to many cases outlined by the latest research from the University of Michigan. How responsible Google actually is for the manner in which Android developers use its platforms has yet to be decided by the courts but the new string of initiatives pushing back against its business practices doesn't spell good news for the Mountain View, California-based technology juggernaut.

The FTC may also end up heeding CCFC's advise due to the ongoing probe of Google's privacy practices that's being helmed by the state of Arizona where Attorney General Mark Brnovich is trying to determine whether the firm broke the 1967 Consumer Fraud Act by tracking locations of its Android users even when they specifically opted out of any programs pulling their GPS and other data that could be used for identifying their whereabouts. With the law allowing for fines of up to $10,000 per a single violation, the probe could theoretically end up costing Google hundreds of millions of dollars, and the FTC has an even broader authority when it comes to sanctioning privacy violations.

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About the Author
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Dominik Bosnjak

Senior Writer
Dominik started at AndroidHeadlines in 2016. He’s approaching his first full decade in the media industry, with his background being primarily in technology, gaming, and entertainment. These days, his focus is more on the political side of the tech game, as well as data privacy issues, with him looking at both of those through the prism of Android. Contact him at [email protected]