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4 out of 5 apps for preschool kids designed to make money off them

Researchers analyzed apps used by 160 children ages three to five.

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Indoor shot of adorable little girl wearing her blonde hair in messy ponytail relaxing on windowsill, using wi-fi on mobile phone in pink case, enjoying online communication after classes at school
The lead author of the study said: "We need more regulations in place." (Cast Of Thousands/Shutterstock)

By Stephen Beech via SWNS

Four out of five apps used by preschool-aged children are designed to make money off their digital experiences, reveals a new study.

Researchers found that kids under five years of age - especially those from low-income households - are often exposed to sneaky adverts and other tactics designed to profit from their game playing.

Nearly 99 per cent of the children studied had at least one manipulative design in one of their top-used apps, according to the findings.

And youngsters whose parents are of lower education were more likely to use apps incorporating manipulative methods that increase advertising exposure.

Lead author Doctor Jenny Radesky said: “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.

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

Kid scratching face while using phone playing game
The researchers say lawmakers should work to eliminate manipulative design. (True Touch Lifestyle/Shutterstock)

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.

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 categorised as “general audience,” according to findings published in JAMA Network Open.

Examples of such designs included pop-up messages - such as “Come back tomorrow and get a dragon” - to entice a return to game playing.

Another stated “You can play with these cute tiny animals for a small fee. Just ask your parents” to encourage in-app purchases.

Characters in some apps said things such as “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 showed one character crying when the child has not followed the prompt.

Another character yelled “save me!” with fabricated time pressure from a countdown clock, shown at a pause in the game to urge prolonged gameplay.

Lures - such as stickers or trophies - were also used to entice users to repeatedly engage with the app.

The researchers noted that an app’s success is often based on metrics such as how long and often users engage with them, which is the likely reason behind design tricks that aim to achieve such goals.

But they said youngsters 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 recognizing that time pressures are fabricated.

Dr Radesky said: "Children love their favourite 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.

“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 which 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.”

She said the findings should encourage government, regulatory or industry leaders to make changes that ensure children’s well-being and design needs are considered before digital products are released to the market.

Dr Radesky, a developmental behavioural paediatrician and Assistant Professor of Paediatrics at the University of Michigan Medical School in the US, added: “Children are avid users of the digital world, and deserve access to its opportunities without having to navigate the glut of profit-centred design that currently dominates the market.

“We have the chance to encourage lawmakers to pass legislation that holds the industry accountable for considering children’s best interests, which includes eliminating manipulative design.”

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