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
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.
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.
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.