Google is marketing apps to kids that share personal data with third parties, show manipulative ads, and are rife with creepy images — from graphic plucking of eyelashes to rubbing oil on scantily clad pregnant women — according to a new review.
In a 99-page letter sent to the Federal Trade Commission on Wednesday, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and 21 other child advocacy groups argue that the government should investigate Google for misrepresenting these apps as safe for families. Two Democratic lawmakers, Sen. Tom Udall and Rep. David Cicilline, also support the letter.
“Google doesn’t really have any incentive to clean up its own app store,” said Josh Golin, executive director of the CCFC, because app makers give Google 30% of the revenue for every app purchase and in-app purchase. “The things that are concerning and problematic, they actually profit off of.”
Apple’s App Store lists some of the same apps, though it has stricter rules for those allowed in its “Kids” category. And Google has done little to address the problem, Golin said, despite getting public heat since April. That’s when a large study by researchers at UC Berkeley revealed that thousands of apps distributed by Google may violate the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), a federal law that restricts companies from collecting and tracking personal information from kids under 13.
Google requires that all of its child-directed apps comply with COPPA and apply for inclusion in its “Designed for Families” program, which has stricter guidelines around ads and content. “We regularly monitor, review and take down apps from Google Play,” a Google spokesperson told BuzzFeed News by email. “We’ve removed thousands of apps from DFF this year alone when we found a policy violation.”
But the new review suggests that many apps sneak into the program despite breaking Google’s own rules.
Working with one of the Berkeley researchers, the CCFC identified 84 apps in the Designed for Families program that were sending the user’s location to third parties, such as AdColony, AppLovin, and MoPub. This sort of data-tracking is common in apps of all kinds, but isn’t supposed to happen in those aimed at kids. (A new lawsuit filed by the state of New Mexico alleges that AppLovin, MoPub, and Google, among others, have violated COPPA by tracking kids’ data.)
The review also found several family apps that displayed ads for alcohol and gambling, which are not supposed to be allowed in the program.
Unlike ads on children’s TV shows, which must follow certain federal restrictions that recognize children as particularly vulnerable to deception, there are no such rules for the internet. So most kids apps are overtaken by obnoxious ads and purchase prompts. In October, a study from the University of Michigan found that many popular apps in the “Ages 5 and Under” category of the Google Play Store are littered with ads, including some “camouflaged” ads made to look like part of the game. The new review similarly found many ads that play automatically, or prompt kids to buy things without parental permission.
The new review also highlights a tougher problem for platforms: kids apps with “dangerous or disturbing content,” as the letter puts it. “With some of these, it almost feels like the game’s true audience is an adult fetish audience,” Golin said. “You’re like, ‘ick, there’s something really weird going on here.’”
In the Crazy Eye Clinic — Doctor X app game, for example, which was listed in Google’s app store for ages 6-12 as well as Apple’s App Store, “the child is told to pry open the patient’s eyes with clamps and use tweezers to pick out eyelashes,” the letter said. (In response to a query from BuzzFeed News, the app’s maker, TabTale, said it was removing it from app stores in order to investigate whether it was appropriate for children.)
In Pregnant Mama Emergency Doctor, an app made by BabyGamesStudio and marketed in Google Play and Apple’s App Store, “the player is told to pour baby oil on a pregnant mother to induce labor and then pump blood into her,” according to the letter. (BabyGamesStudio could not be reached for comment.)
Kids playing Sweet Baby Girl Daycare 4 – Babysitting Fun, which is listed in Apple’s store and is labeled by Google for ages 8 and under, have to change a baby girl’s diaper in order to earn coins. “On-screen arrows direct the child to remove the baby’s diaper and to wipe the child’s genitals with a cloth,” according to the FTC letter. “Next, the child is directed to sprinkle powder on the baby and then [use] the disembodied hand to rub the powder all over the baby’s body.” (TutoTOONS, which makes this app, told BuzzFeed News it has now updated the game, removing “all scenes involving diaper-changing and baby bath,” according to its chief marketing officer, Miglė Šaulytė. “We are sorry that one of our games has caused these complaints and we appreciate them being expressed as it helps us improve.”)
“I think kids are curious about what’s forbidden,” said Jenny Radesky, a pediatrician at the University of Michigan who led the October study about manipulative ads. Some of these apps allow children “to test out naughty things, or things you otherwise wouldn’t have access to, like being someone else’s dentist or running a baby daycare.”
YouTube, which is owned by Google, has struggled to deal with similarly bizarre animated content, as well as more explicitly exploitative videos featuring young kids in predatory situations. YouTube has pledged to work with experts to weed out these videos and offer more appropriate family content. But Google Play doesn’t offer much guidance on what makes for kid-appropriate non-ad content, other than stating that apps in the Designed for Families program should not have “violence, gore, or shocking content not appropriate for children.”
Compared to beer ads or location-tracking, which can be blocked with standard tools, it’s of course harder for platforms to draw lines around what’s too gross or lewd. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try, Radesky said.
“I don’t have the answer for where to put limits on what should be in kids apps,” she said, “but certainly I think there should be some thought about it first.”