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You might find it hard to believe, but there isn't much in the way of regulation when it comes to digital advertising, whether it's on the web or in an app. You may also be surprised to hear that Google and Apple don't set strict guidelines on how an app needs to behave to be safe for children to use.

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What you probably do know is that piles of "free-to-play" mobile games are stuffed with questionable ads and in-app transactions -- and it turns out that the situation is at least as bad in "educational" children's apps as it is for adult apps, according to a new study from the pediatrics department of the University of Michigan Medical School (UMMS) which was spotted today by BuzzFeed News.

In US television, the Federal Communications Commission has been regulating advertisements targeted at children for decades. As a result, characters on children's shows are strictly forbidden from pitching a product directly to the viewer, an act called "host selling." But there's no such regulation for apps or websites, and the UMMS found multiple examples of it in popular children's apps during the study.

The problem with host selling as it relates to children is the target audience lacks the ability to distinguish ads from actual content, and they may have developed parasocial relationships with these characters which are now being used to manipulate them.

The study says, "In some cases, app characters showed disapproval of the user or an important mission (such as rescuing characters) could not be accomplished without a purchase, which may also lead children to feel an emotionally charged need to make purchases."

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Unlike previous studies in this area, UMMS's research was based on actual popular apps on the Google Play Store (they did not test on iPhones or iPads because the lab lacked an Android device), and several are named and shamed in their report, such as Strawberry Shortcake's Sweet Shop and Masha and the Bear -- the latter of which may be violating federal children's privacy laws by asking for the user's location information.

More than half of the free apps in the study frequently interrupted play with a pop-up advertisement, some of which could not be closed until the ad had concluded its pitch. In a few cases, the child couldn't exit the ad until they'd interacted with a demo version of an advertised app.

The study notes, "In some apps, such as Kids Animal Jigsaw Puzzle, pop-up advertisements took up roughly as much time as gameplay, since advertisements appeared every time the player completed a puzzle and returned to the homepage and while trying to open a new puzzle."

Overall, the study indicates that app developers don't hold back on children when it comes to mobile app sales tricks. Both Apple and Google have review guidelines for basic behavior, but some very popular apps targeted at children appear to be playing loose with the rules.

Perhaps Apple should add another section to its new online privacy hub.

Takeaways

  • A study of childrens' apps at the University of Michigan Medical School found an unsettling amount of advertising and upsell pressuring, in violation of app store guidelines and possibly federal law.
  • It's a particularly pernicious issue for children, who lack the cognitive development to distinguish an advertisement from the rest of the content.

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Tom McNamara is a Senior Editor for CNET's Download.com. He mainly covers Windows, mobile and desktop security, games, Google, streaming services, and social media. Tom was also an editor at Maximum PC and IGN, and his work has appeared on CNET, PC Gamer, MSN.com, and Salon.com. He's also unreasonably proud that he's kept the same phone for more than two years.