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Manipulative features of some apps may push preschoolers to spend money, too much time playing


NEW YORK (Reuters) – Certain game apps popular with young children may lure them into spending money or too much time playing, a new study suggests.

An analysis of data from a study that assessed child development and use of mobile devices in 3-to-5-year-olds revealed the presence of manipulative software promoting prolonged gameplay or purchases, researchers report in JAMA Network Open.

“Manipulative designs are prevalent across the apps that children play; these designs pressure users into extending the time they spend with the app and making purchases while they are there,” said Dr. Alexis Hiniker of the University of Washington Information School, Seattle, who worked on the analysis. “There are clear patterns in the way these manipulations are implemented, suggesting common practices across the industry.”

“I think one of the most important things for all of us to realize is that these manipulations are systematic and widespread,” she told Reuters Health by email. “We should all be putting more pressure on technology companies to create positive digital experiences for children and less pressure on parents – who increasingly have to sift through a sea of low-quality and manipulative content.”

“Apps that respect the user’s time and are aligned with child development should be the norm, but right now they are the exception,” Dr. Hiniker said. “Kids are resilient and can certainly thrive despite playing low-quality apps and encountering manipulative designs. So, to me, the take-home message is not that parents need to be more vigilant, it’s that tech companies frequently show great disregard for their child users’ best interests.”

To take a closer look at manipulative features in some apps that target children, Dr. Hiniker and her colleagues turned to the longitudinal, single-center Preschooler Tablet Study. Data were collected in three waves: phase 1 (baseline), phase 2 (three months), and phase 3 (six months). The children’s parents received up to $150 if they completed all three phases.

The Preschooler Tablet Study used a community-based convenience sample of English-speaking parents or legal guardians of 3-to-5-year-old children who owned an Android or iOS tablet or smartphone. The parents were queried about sociodemographic characteristics, including household income and size and the participating parent’s educational level.

Included in the analysis were 160 children who had a mean age of 4. Three-quarters were non-Hispanic White, and 60% had a parent with at least a college degree.

Certain apps used manipulative features to prolong gameplay or purchases through four typologies: game characters used social pressure to keep users playing or expressed disapproval if the player wanted to stop in 25% of apps and to manipulate players into spending money in 19%; apps created time pressure to prolong play (17%) or to get children to spend money (11%); navigation constraints were used in 46% to prolong play and in 37% to get children to spend money; attractive lures were used in 45% of apps to get children to keep playing and in 46% to manipulate them into spending money.

Children with parents who had lower educational levels had significantly higher manipulative-design-prevalence scores than children with parents who graduated from college (median, 3.7 vs. 3.0); gameplay-prolonging design (2.3 vs. 2.0); and purchase pressure (1.0 vs. 0.6). Purchase-pressure-prevalence scores were also higher for children from households with lower incomes.

“To me, two other notable findings were, first, that apps were even more likely to pressure users into spending time than spending money,” Dr. Hiniker said. “So, in addition to examining the advertising and purchase pressure that children are exposed to, we also need to be thinking about how kids’ time and attention are manipulated.”

“Second, I found it noteworthy that apps were so likely to leverage kids’ relationships with characters,” she added. “Kids, like all people, have a strong drive to establish interpersonal connections – which are key to a healthy and happy life – and companies routinely seek to profit off this inclination and leverage kids’ emotional connections to characters.”

In the “attention economy,” game designers create apps that “addict us in order to maximize revenue,” said Dr. Joey Lee, director of the Games Research Lab at Columbia University’s Teachers College, New York.

“Designers often use loot boxes or other slot-machine-like mechanics (which have been banned in some countries) to addict players by giving them the chance to obtain a rare, powerful item,” he told Reuters Health by email. “Other tactics include appointment dynamics and daily reward schedules to build habits, social pressures and obligations, artificial scarcity and other monetary schemes, and various other psychological tricks.”

The manipulative features described in the study were banned in California and Colorado in 2021, said Dr. Lee, who was not involved in the research. But overall “there hasn’t been sufficient regulation to protect consumers,” he added.

“There is generally poor transparency regarding the design of games and what kinds of questionable ethical design elements lie within. Most consumers may look at an ESRB rating, which might describe violent content or suggestive themes but does not describe impacts on psychology or manipulative tactics that can impact one’s mental health or well-being.”

As for the current study, “it is great to see increased attention to the questionable practices that especially [target] vulnerable children and minoritized groups,” Dr. Lee said, adding that the study does have limitations, including that it is based on a convenience sample.

“There need to be standards in place and greater transparency regarding game mechanics and how designs impact behavior and agency,” he said. “Children at such a young age likely do not have the critical thinking and digital literary skills needed to protect themselves from exploitation and manipulation.”

Reuters Health Information © 2022

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