Helping keep children safe in a mobile world


Children are highly susceptible to advertising, and it’s getting more difficult to recognize advertising for what it is and protect children from it. Take a look at tech tricks in mobile advertising and ways to avoid them.

Children are highly susceptible to advertising, and it’s getting more difficult to recognize advertising for what it is and protect children from it.

Mobile advertising has changed the game for direct marketing to children, and was the subject of a session titled, “Mobile Ads Aimed at Children: Ethical and Developmental Concerns,” presented on October 26, 2019, at the 2019 American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Annual Conference and Exhibition in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Presenter Jenny Radesky, MP, FAAP, assistant professor of developmental behavioral pediatrics at the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor, says the goal of the session was to help pediatricians understand how children see advertising, why they are so vulnerable to advertising messages, and how new advertising methods are so different than traditional TV-based ads.

“Commercialism and advertising are now integrated into YouTube content, influencer culture, in-app purchases, and prompts to watch more advertisements,” Dr. Radesky explains. “Our research on advertising in children’s apps shows how design choices can manipulate young users-for example prompting them to share their success on Facebook, leading to more data collection; or familiar characters suggesting that the child make in-app purchases. With this new advertising digital environment, it is important for parents to understand how to help make their children critically aware of the way that designers may be trying to influence their behavior.”

According to Dr. Radesky’s presentation, children aged younger than 7 years have a really hard time when it comes to identifying ads and persuasive content, and more than 75% of kids use a smartphone or tablet at home now compared to less than half less than a decade ago. As they age, children get better at identifying ads, often with parental help, but really aren’t fully aware of how these ads are designed to influence their behavior, and are often unable to resist the messages of ads. Dr. Radesky says she hopes to help increase awareness among pediatricians and parents of the design tricks that are now common in children’s technology, including autoplay, badges, in-app purchases, and more.

“All of this is really appealing to young, curious, reward-driven brains, but essentially it is taking advantage of these developmental differences in children. Real life does not have all of these frequent rewards and badges, so it can be tougher to encourage real-life play when children have formed preferences for technology based on these design tricks,” Dr. Radesky says. “As children grow up in an increasingly digital environment, it’s even more important than ever that they be critically aware about the messages and persuasive design that is trying to change their mind and behavior-often based on data that’s already been collected about them-and try to resist falling for it. Pediatricians can also play a role in advocating for a better policy to protect children’s digital rights and improve equitable access to quality, non-commercial media.”

The key is for parents and providers to become more digitally savvy, though Dr. Radesky acknowledges that doing this-and finding the time to discuss it during pediatric visits that are already crunched for time-can be a challenge.

“Parents need to feel empowered to get rid of the terribly designed tech that wants their children’s eyeballs-basically, I want them to know that if they see an app or video streaming service with tons of ads, pop-ups, data trackers, or prompts to keep making purchases, they should uninstall it,” she says. “Remove it from the child’s media diet.”

As far as finding time to discuss healthy media use with parents, Dr. Radesky suggests a number of resources that pediatricians can share with parents to continue their research outside of the clinic. Some of these resources include the AAP Family Media Use Plan and Common Sense Media, which includes suggestions for quality shows, apps, and movies, as well as highlighting to parents and providers new questionable content and tricky tech designs. Parents also need to take the time to see what their child sees, she adds.


“Co-viewing with children is crucial to teaching them how to be savvy about advertising, how to question the messages that they might see online, and how to spot poorly designed apps that are really just vehicles for ads and data collection,” Dr. Radesky says. “I’m hoping that this will lead to less downloading of unhelpful apps, and more parents being choosy about the digital products that their children use. This will likely lead to children spending less time on media overall, because honestly, the highest-quality media for children-such as PBS or Sesame Street-doesn’t use design tricks. They want children to unplug and go explore the world when they’re done watching.”

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