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Tablets, smartphones, and apps are a part of daily life for many children. Unfortunately, those same apps could be giving third parties identifying information, according to an investigation.
For many young children there is no greater joy than being handed a parent’s tablet and playing with the fun, colorful apps specially designed to appeal to children. However, these same apps can make it easy for youngsters to inadvertently spend a lot of money or expose their private information. An investigation in JAMA Pediatrics looked into the data collection and sharing on apps designed for children.1
Researchers looked at data from the baseline phase of the Preschooler Tablet Study, which was a prospective cohort study that ran from August 2018 to January 2020. The study used a convenience sample of parents of preschool-aged children that were found through childcare centers, online participant registry, pediatric offices, and social media posts. The participants interacted via email, online surveys, and mobile device sampling. Parents were eligible if they were parent or guardian to a child aged 3 to 5 years; they spoke English; the child used an Android device; and the participant lived with the child at least 5 days per week.
The researchers’ sample included 124 with 35 accessing apps on a tablet and 89 accessing them on smartphones. A total of 451 apps were tested by the researchers. They found that 303 of the apps sent persistent identifiers to 1 to 33 third-party domains. The child data transmission counts went from 0 to 614 (median [interquartile range], 5.0 [1-17.5]) and the third-party domain counts ranged from 0 to 399 (median [interquartile range], 4.0 [1-12.5]). Within multivariable negative binomial regression models, the researchers found that higher transmission and third-party domain rates per app had positive associations with older age (rate ratio, 1.67 [95% CI, 1.20-2.33]; P = .002 and 1.69 [95% CI, 1.26-2.27]; P < .001, respectively) as well as lower parental education level (eg, high school or General Educational Development or less rate ratio, 2.29 [95% CI, 1.20-4.39]; P = .003 and 2.05 [95% CI, 1.13-3.70]; P < .02, respectively). No positive association was found with household income.
The investigators found that many apps used by young children were transmitting persistent identifiers to third parties at a high frequency, which is not consistent with federal privacy rules that are meant to protect children. They also found older children, children who had their own tablet or smartphone, or children who lived in households with parental lower educational attainment were at greater risk of potential privacy violations.
1. Zhao F, Egelman S, Weeks H, Kaciroti N, Miller A, Radesky J. Data collection practices of mobile applications played by preschool-aged children. JAMA Pediatr. September 8, 2020. Epub ahead of print. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2020.3345