Three senators sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) on Tuesday, urging the agency to investigate advertising in children’s apps. The senators believe that, according to a recent study that looked at the prevalence of these apps, the techniques are in violation of a section of the FTC Act that prohibits “unfair or deceptive acts or practices.”
The study that served as a catalyst for Tuesday’s letter was published at the end of last month in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics. Out of 135 young children’s apps, the study found that 95 percent had at least one type of advertising. The researchers wrote that they “found high rates of mobile advertising through manipulative and disruptive methods.”
In their letter to the FTC, Senators Ed Markey, Tom Udall, and Richard Blumenthal detail several examples of the exploitative advertising methods used in children’s apps. One app cited by the Senators rewards kids with medicine to help sick animals if they watch an ad. Some of the apps encourage kids to make in-app purchases even when the apps are characterized as free. In another app, Barbie tells players they should dress their characters, but clothing can only be acquired through purchase. The letter also describes an app that displays a crying animated character whenever a player tries to navigate away from the in-app store. What’s more, the senators criticized apps that are marketed as educational but still feature a litany of in-app advertising, tainting what they argue should be an informative experience for kids.
“Children should be able to entertain themselves and play without being bombarded by promotional messages, which young people may not be able to accurately assess and identify as marketing,” the letter states. “Children are often unable to distinguish between advertising and non-sponsored content, and it is not until they are much older that they can comprehend the ‘selling intent’ of marketing.”
The senators have given the FTC a deadline of December 4 to respond to their letter, stating that the agency “has a statutory obligation to protect consumers from unfair and deceptive advertising practices. That responsibility is all the more urgent when the potential victims of such practices are children.”
This isn’t a unique demand—parents, child health advocates, and lawmakers have called for tech companies to better protect their young users in the recent past. And it’s not exclusive to in-app advertising and purchases—messaging services, smart speakers, and internet-connected toys have all been met with mounting pushback from those who care about the safety and wellbeing of formidable young minds.