Raising Your Child in a Digital World:

Finding a healthy balance of time online without techno tantrums and conflict

What ‘free’ apps for preschoolers really cost

Home » Parents » What ‘free’ apps for preschoolers really cost

What ‘free’ apps for preschoolers really cost

A 2018 study examined 135 popular free and paid apps for kids under 5 years, the majority of which were downloaded more than 10 million times each and some upwards of 50 million times and found that 95% of such apps included at least one type of advertising, some of which are embedded in games or activities. These apps manipulate young children by forcing them to watch ads or enticing them to make in-app purchases, resulting in potentially harmful behaviour, according to the study from the University of Michigan Medical School.

Basically, the ‘free’ kids app market is highly commercialised and misleading.

The apps use distracting and deceptive advertising methods that sometimes violate the Federal Trade Commission Act that prohibits misleading advertising. Many of these apps are marketed as ‘educational’, but they’re simply advertising wrapped up in a kids’ game.

You can watch a segment where I spoke about these apps below:


What are the risks for young kids?

// kids under 6 years lack a meta-awareness about advertising. Generally, they find it difficult to distinguish advertising from regular content, so they’re unable to critically reflect upon their reactions to it. Therefore, children under 6 years old may be especially susceptible to collecting tokens or other game play items which are a tool to advertise directly to them, or entice them with in-app purchases. Most of the research on kids and media advertising has focused on TV but some researchers worry that kids may also have even less understanding of online advertising in apps than in TV ads because it’s a more immersive and personalised experience.

// these ads prey on kids’ psychological vulnerabilities- some of these apps contain characters who cry when in app-purchases aren’t made and ads are designed to look like part of the game. Kids often feel emotionally charged when playing apps and have built rapport with characters who encourage them to make purchases or to watch pop-up ads. Some apps contained buttons that contained what the researchers say were misleading symbols – a dollar sign or teddy bear, for example. If a child clicked on those buttons, they would see videos for other toys or food.

// exposure to content that is not age-appropriate- some of the apps contained a cartoon of President Donald Trump wanting to a press a nuke button and other apps included advertising for bipolar treatments, and a car shooting game called Fastlane: Road to Revenge. Young children, who these apps are designed, lack the emotional skills to process the content and in turn this can scare children, or expose them to sexualised or violent content. Kids can’t distinguish fiction from reality until well after 5 years.

// The ads are disruptive to children compromising any educational value- ads pop up or interfere with the game or in some instances render the game/app non-functional until the ad is complete. Some games are also filled with pop-up ads that interrupt play, and some app developers have made the cancel button nearly impossible to find or activate for small hands. This impacts educational value and may fracture kids’ attention spans, as they become conditioned to a staccato way of thinking.

// Deceptive to parents who think they’re downloading educational apps. Many of the apps with ads were classified as ‘educational’. There are some brilliant, educational apps for preschoolers, most of which are paid apps.

What ‘free’ apps for preschoolers really cost

What can parents do to ensure their kids are safe?

  1. Prevent ‘appcidents’- by setting up parental controls & restrictions- both Google and Apple apps stores state when apps have ads or offer in-app purchases and also allow you to set up require authentication for all app purchases.
  2. Avoid ‘freemium’ apps- these apps can use persuasive and deceptive design tactics so the ad looks like part of the game. Remember, if you don’t pay for the product you are the product.
  3. Know before you load- test drive the apps yourself. Know exactly how the app functions before your kids use it.
  4. Keep devices in accessible areas of the home- so you can monitor what they’re doing online.

Want to know more about keeping preschoolers safe and healthy online? Access my eBook here titled ‘Raising 2-5 Year Olds in a Digital World’.


Interested in Dr Kristy speaking at your school or education event?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *