Four out of five children’s game apps include such design features, known as “dark patterns”, in order to “serve the interests of technology companies over the interests of children”.
The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan, found that as a result of the manipulative design features, children refuse to give up their devices during dinner or at bedtime, leading to family stress.
It also found that children from low-income homes or whose parents have lower education levels are more likely to use apps that deploy such methods and increase their exposure to advertisements.
Lead author Jenny Radesky, a researcher at Michigan Medicine, said in a statement: “These design tricks disproportionately occur in apps used by children from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds, suggesting inequities in how young children’s attention is exploited for monetisation.”
Examples of manipulation found by the researchers include a game that told users: “You can play with these cute animals for a tiny fee! Ask you parents!”
Other games pressure users to continue playing by “expressing disapproval” if they stop. In My Talking Tom 2, which features an animated talking cat, the character made statements such as “Do you want to give up?” when the player opted not to move to the next level, or “You’re making me want to go to sleep” when the player was idle.
Another way in which children are put under pressure is by notifications that urge them to return to the game at a later time, using the promise of a reward.
A character from the game Dragon Mania Legends told users: “Come back tomorrow to get THIS dragon! Then visit Dragolandia for other valuable rewards!”
The study, published in the medical journal JAMA Network Open, detailed other methods including fake time pressure, navigation constraints, and advertisement-based pressure.
Radesky said: “Children love their favourite media characters, so they may be particularly susceptible to pressure from them, or by virtual rewards flashed across the screen every time they are at a point when they might choose to disengage from the app.
“Adult users might expect to be targeted by ads through apps on digital devices. But children are too young to understand this type of persuasive design that disrupts their game playing.”
She continued: “Parents often say their children refuse to hand over devices when it’s time to do something else – like come to dinner or get ready for bed – and the gameplay-prolonging design tricks we found are likely contributing to this avoidable source of family stress.”
The study’s authors wrote that they hoped their findings would encourage industry leaders to further regulate children’s apps.
They added: “There is ... a pressing need for government, regulatory or industry actions to ensure that children’s needs are considered before digital products are released to market.”
Outfit7, the video game company that made My Talking Tom 2, advises parents on its website to “agree time limits”, while Gameloft, which makes Dragon Mania Legends, says it “strongly encourages parents to monitor the behaviours of their children”.