Kids

Children’s groups want FTC to ban ‘unfair’ online manipulation of children

My Talking Tom, an animated video game featuring a pet cat, is one of the most popular apps for young children. To progress through the game, youngsters must take care of a wide-eyed virtual cat and earn points for each task they complete.

The app, which has been downloaded more than 1 billion times from the Google Play Store, also bombards children with marketing. It is full of advertisements, constantly offering players extra points in exchange for watching advertisements and encouraging them to buy virtual game accessories.

“Each screen has multiple traps for your little one to click on,” Josiah Ostley, a parent, wrote in a critical review of the app on the Google Play Store last month, adding that he was removing the app.

Now, some prominent children’s advocacy, privacy and health groups want to ban user engagement techniques that, they say, unfairly direct the behavior of minors and hijack their attention. On Thursday morning, a coalition of more than 20 groups filed a petition asking the Federal Trade Commission to ban video games like My Talking Tom, as well as social networks like TikTok and other online services, from using certain high-profile practices that could hook kids online .

In particular, the groups asked regulators to ban online services from offering unpredictable rewards – a technique used by slot machines – to keep children online.

The groups also asked the agency to ban online services from using social pressure techniques such as displaying the number of likes collected on children’s social media posts and endless content feeds that could lead children to read more spending time online than they might have wanted.

The petition to federal regulators warned that such practices could promote or exacerbate anxiety, depression, eating disorders or self-harm in children and teens.

“Design features that maximize minors’ time and activities online are highly detrimental to the health and safety of minors,” the child activists wrote in the petition. “The FTC can and should create traffic rules to clarify when these design practices cross the line into unlawful unfairness, protecting vulnerable users from unfair harm.”

The coalition was led by Fairplay, a nonprofit children’s advocacy group, and the Center for Digital Democracy, a children’s privacy and digital rights group. Other signatories included the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Network for Public Education.

Outfit7, the developer of My Talking Tom, did not immediately email back asking for comment.

The FTC petition comes as legislators, regulators and health leaders in the United States and abroad are increasingly scrutinizing the online tracking and attention hacking practices of popular online platforms — and seeking to mitigate the potential risks to children. In doing so, these activists challenge the business model of apps and sites whose main revenue comes from digital advertising.

Online services like TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube routinely employ data-gathering techniques and persuasive design elements, including content recommendation algorithms, smartphone notifications, or auto-playing videos in sequence to drive user engagement. The more time people spend on an app or site, the more ads they’re likely to see.

Civil liberties experts have argued that the safeguards could also have harmful consequences. The measures, they argue, could subject children to increased surveillance, potentially deterring vulnerable youth from finding online resources on sensitive issues such as reproductive health or gender identity.

Young people themselves report mixed feelings about their online activities. In a survey of about 1,300 teens in the United States, published Wednesday by the Pew Research Center, 80% said social media made them feel more connected to their friends’ lives. About 30% also said they felt social media had a negative effect on people their age.

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