Advocacy groups call for ban on ‘unfair’ online manipulation of children

A loading screen from My Talking Tom, a wildly popular app game targeted at very young children. (Photos: NYTimes)
My Talking Tom, an animated video game featuring a pet cat, is one of the most popular apps for young children. To advance through the game, youngsters must care for a wide-eyed virtual cat, earning points for each task they complete.اضافة اعلان

The app, which has been downloaded more than 1 billion times from the Google Play Store, also bombards children with marketing. It is crowded with ads, constantly offers players extra points in exchange for viewing ads and encourages them to buy virtual game accessories.

“Every 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 deleting the app.

Now some prominent children’s advocacy, privacy, and health groups want to ban user engagement techniques that, they say, unfairly steer 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 (FTC) to prohibit video games such as My Talking Tom, as well as social networks such as TikTok and other online services, from employing certain attention-grabbing practices that may hook children online.

In particular, the groups asked regulators to prohibit online services from offering unpredictable rewards — a technique that slot machines use — to keep children online.

The groups also asked the agency to prohibit online services from using social pressure techniques, such as displaying the number of likes that children’s social media posts garner, and endless content feeds that may cause children to spend more time online than they may have wished.

The petition to federal regulators warned that such practices might foster or exacerbate anxiety, depression, eating disorders or self-harm among children and teenagers.

A level-up screen from My Talking Tom, a wildly popular app game targeted at very young children. 

“Design features that maximize minors’ time and activities online are deeply harmful to minors’ health and safety,” the children’s activists wrote in the petition. “The FTC can and must establish rules of the road to clarify when these design practices cross the line into unlawful unfairness, thus protecting vulnerable users from unfair harms.”

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 return an email seeking comment.

Online services such as TikTok, Instagram and YouTube routinely employ data-harvesting techniques and compelling design elements — such as content-recommendation algorithms, smartphone notices, or videos that automatically play one after another — to drive user engagement. The more time people spend on an app or site, the more ads they are likely to view.

Now legislators, regulators, and children’s groups are taking a new approach to try to curb the use of such attention-hacking practices on minors. They are trying to hold online services to the same kinds of basic safety standards as the automobile industry — essentially requiring apps and sites to install the digital equivalent of seat belts and air bags for younger users.

Last year, for instance, the UK instituted comprehensive online safeguards for young people, known as the Children’s Code. The new rules require social media and video game platforms likely to be used by minors to turn off certain features that could be detrimental — such as barraging users with notifications at all hours of the night — by default for younger users.

Before the British rules went into effect, TikTok, YouTube, Instagram, and other popular services bolstered their safeguards for younger users worldwide.

Young people themselves report mixed feelings about their online activities. In a survey of roughly 1,300 teenagers in the US, published November 16, by the Pew Research Center, 80 percent said social media made them feel more connected to their friends’ lives. About 30 percent also said they felt that social media had a negative effect on people their age.

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