According to a study, many apps used by children as young as three engage in manipulative behavior to keep them hooked and sell virtual items.
A medical study from the University of Michigan has highlighted how most apps used by children as young as three engage in manipulative tactics to prolong their gaming sessions and coax them into buying virtual items. Unfortunately, this isn’t the first finding of its kind, as apps intended for young audiences are often treated as a goldmine for collecting data and monetization. For example, a 2019 study found that Minecraft and Fortnite have become a hub for online predators to target kids.
Popular networking apps like Instagram and Snapchat have also become a hotbed for grooming. YouTube, on the other hand, was slapped with a fine worth $170 million for allowing disturbing content on the YouTube Kids app. In addition, Meta had to abandon its own Instagram for Kids project following an intense backlash, primarily because the platform has yet to solve its existing problems with harassment and predatory behavior but was already working on an app aimed at an even more vulnerable audience.
Related: Instagram Gets New Parental Control Tools But There’s A Caveat
A new study now sheds more light on how some of the most popular apps used by kids between three to five years of age are extremely problematic in their design. To push users into extending gameplay time or making in-app purchases, these apps relied on manipulative user interfaces that involved parasocial characters. For example, games targeted at children often used statements like “Do you want to give up?” “Come back tomorrow to get THIS dragon! Then visit Dragolandia each day for other valuable rewards!” “You can play with these cute animals for a tiny fee! Ask your parents!” and “Don’t just stand there, buy something!” According to the study titled “Prevalence and Characteristics of Manipulative Design in Mobile Applications Used by Children,” published in JAMA Network Open, four out of five apps that were analyzed as part of the research were “manipulative” by design, and their modus operandi reeked of what experts classify as “dark patterns.” Out of the 160 children that were part of the study, almost 99 percent had at least one such app among the list of apps they most frequently used.
Coming out of the University of Michigan, the study highlighted problematic behavior such as “parasocial relationship pressure, fabricated time pressure, navigation constraints, and use of attractive lures to encourage longer gameplay or more purchases,” aside from ads that exert additional pressure. What is truly worrying is that children belonging to households with lower socioeconomic status were more disproportionately affected by such apps. But more than statistics, it’s the kind of granular manipulation in these apps that truly raises alarms. Aside from luring children to get back or pressuring them into purchasing in-game items, these apps also employed time-based pressure tactics to coax the target audience into taking urgent action, which led to getting sucked back into the game or making a purchase to save a character.
Nearly half of the apps studied made it difficult for players to quit a level or opt out, a tactic that prevents disengagement and prolongs gameplay time. In a healthy number of cases, the apps intentionally buried the free virtual items. Instead, they prominently highlighted the paid things to ensure that the young users were eventually goaded into making a purchase. As far as in-app ads go, they were either as long as 20 seconds or substituted the back button in favor of a guiding button that led users to the respective app repository where items could be purchased. Fancy banners, brightly-colored items, and other such audio-visual tricks were also employed to captivate the imagination of young minds in hopes of selling virtual items. Unsurprisingly, free apps engaged in more aggressive advertising and monetization tactics than paid apps. The study hopes to stir a discussion around child-centric design policies for mobile apps that can dictate how children interact with mobile apps and ensure a healthy experience.
Next: Parental Controls On iPhone: How To Restrict Apps & Prevent Purchases
Sources: University of Michigan, JAMA Network Open
Nadeem has been writing about consumer technology for over three years now, having worked with names such as NDTV and Pocketnow in the past. Aside from covering the latest news, he also has experience testing out the latest phones and laptops. When he’s not writing, you can find him failing at Doom eternal.

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