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Advertising in Young Children's Apps

A Content Analysis

Meyer, Marisa*; Adkins, Victoria MSW; Yuan, Nalingna MS*; Weeks, Heidi M. PhD; Chang, Yung-Ju PhD§; Radesky, Jenny MD*

Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics: January 2019 - Volume 40 - Issue 1 - p 32–39
doi: 10.1097/DBP.0000000000000622
Original Articles
Watch video abstract

Objective: Young children use mobile devices on average 1 hour/day, but no studies have examined the prevalence of advertising in children's apps. The objective of this study was to describe the advertising content of popular children's apps.

Methods: To create a coding scheme, we downloaded and played 39 apps played by children aged 12 months to 5 years in a pilot study of a mobile sensing app; 2 researchers played each app, took detailed notes on the design of advertisements, and iteratively refined the codebook (interrater reliability 0.96). Codes were then applied to the 96 most downloaded free and paid apps in the 5 And Under category on the Google Play app store.

Results: Of the 135 apps reviewed, 129 (95%) contained at least 1 type of advertising. These included use of commercial characters (42%); full-app teasers (46%); advertising videos interrupting play (e.g., pop-ups [35%] or to unlock play items [16%]); in-app purchases (30%); prompts to rate the app (28%) or share on social media (14%); distracting ads such as banners across the screen (17%) or hidden ads with misleading symbols such as “$” or camouflaged as gameplay items (7%). Advertising was significantly more prevalent in free apps (100% vs 88% of paid apps), but occurred at similar rates in apps labeled as “educational” versus other categories.

Conclusion: In this exploratory study, we found high rates of mobile advertising through manipulative and disruptive methods. These results have implications for advertising regulation, parent media choices, and apps' educational value.

This article has supplementary material on the web site:

*Division of Developmental Behavioral Pediatrics, Department of Pediatrics, University of Michigan Medical School, Ann Arbor, MI;

Child Health Evaluation and Research Center, Department of Pediatrics, University of Michigan Medical School, Ann Arbor, MI;

Department of Nutritional Sciences, University of Michigan School of Public Health, Ann Arbor, MI;

§Department of Computer Science, National Chiao Tung University, Hsinchu, Taiwan.

Address for reprints: Jenny Radesky, MD, Department of Pediatrics, University of Michigan Medical School, 300 North Ingalls Street, Room 1107, Ann Arbor, MI 48109; e-mail:

This study was funded by the Jeannette Ferrantino Award through the Department of Pediatrics, University of Michigan Medical School. Analysis of paid apps and travel for M. Meyer to the Pediatric Academic Societies Meeting was paid for with support from the Lozoff Fund through the Division of Developmental Behavioral Pediatrics at the University of Michigan Medical School and the Univeristy of Michigan UROP Program.

J. Radesky writes articles for the PBS Parents website, for which she receives payment. The remaining authors declare no conflict of interest.

All copyrighted and trademarked app names, characters, and images are the property of their respective owners, but are used in this research study under the “Fair Use” doctrine.

Supplemental digital content is available for this article. Direct URL citations appear in the printed text and are provided in the HTML and PDF versions of this article on the journal's web site (

See the Video Abstract at

Received June 04, 2018

Accepted August 21, 2018

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