Addictive apps are designed to capture our kids’ attention — and their data

Advertising firms are collecting data on our children with the help of apps designed to hold their attention using the same techniques as slot machines.

Arianne Grace via Flickr | Public Domain
Companies are targeting children with apps and games specifically designed to capture their attention and their data.

Your kids’ phones are collecting more data about them than you think.

Advertising firms hold an average of 72 million pieces of data about any child by the time they turn 13. These companies want kids’ identifying information so that it can be sold, used to track their interests, show them ads, and sell them products.

To make matters worse, companies design their apps and games specifically to capture kids’ attention. They use the same techniques as slot machines to keep kids glued to their screens. 

We need the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to crack down on addictive techniques on apps, sites and games targeted at children.

Addictive apps designed to collect kids’ data

Right now, companies are free to design games and apps with the most manipulative techniques they can muster.

Features like autoplay and lock screen notifications to check platforms can contribute to longer screen time. Some platforms have default settings that make kids share more information and data about themselves than is necessary for the service they’re getting. And still others entice kids to spend extremely large sums of money in exchange for in-game perks.

Spending more and more time looking at screens — like these apps are designed to encourage kids to do — can pose a risk to kids’ physical and mental health. Excess screen time can lead to eye problems, and to lack of sleep during developmental periods when getting enough sleep is crucial. And rising anxiety and depression have been linked to social media use.

The FTC can protect our kids

The FTC must take action against companies purposefully designing their products to manipulate kids with addictive apps.

There are lots of rules and laws written to protect kids in the offline world. We have laws to protect kids from health threats caused by lead paint and unsafe toys, and to enforce safety standards for things like car seats.

But even though kids are spending more and more time online to learn, socialize, and play, there are almost no rules ensuring the web is a safe and healthy place for our youngest citizens.

Kids spend a lot of time online. We need to make sure they can do it safely, so we’re working to convince the FTC to ban manipulative tech design.


R.J. Cross

Director, Don't Sell My Data Campaign, PIRG

R.J. focuses on data privacy issues and the commercialization of personal data in the digital age. Her work ranges from consumer harms like scams and data breaches, to manipulative targeted advertising, to keeping kids safe online. In her work at Frontier Group, she has authored research reports on government transparency, consumer debt and predatory auto lending, and has testified before Congress. Her work has appeared in WIRED magazine, CBS Mornings and USA Today, among other outlets. When she’s not protecting the public interest, she is an avid reader, fiction writer and birder. Though she lives in Boston, she will always consider herself a Kansan at heart.

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