Sexually suggestive ads appearing on children's apps

    Sexually suggestive ads popping up on children's apps

    Jon George is a minister and parent.

    He told us about the shocking ad he saw while his 5-year-old son was playing an age-appropriate turtle game last year.

    They downloaded the game from the Google Play store.

    I asked him to describe the ad that he saw on his child’s game app.

    “When I first saw the first image that he was looking at, it was actually two adult women that were completely naked,” George said.

    Then George saw another ad that he says was clearly for mature audiences.

    “They were actually advertisements that were promoting another app within the app store that had a mature rating,” George said.

    Complaints from more parents

    We searched Google Play. We found a number of complaints from parents about sexually suggestive ads, or other inappropriate content, tied to free children’s apps.

    Check out this app called Paint Easy. Here’s a comment from February 4, 2017: “Never an issue until recently with the ads. Last night, one popped up with music blaring, moaning, and a bouncing naked woman.”

    Here’s another free app called Toilet Training-Baby’s Potty. A comment from May 20, 2017: “Do not appreciate adverts for chat lines on a child's app! Very inappropriate.”

    Look at this app called Puppy Fire Patrol. A comment posted on August 5, 2016 said, “My son does not need tips to lose belly fat, or to see naked women in your disgusting ads. The developer responded: You can turn the ads off by buying the Pro version, or turning the WIFI off.”

    Abbas Razaghpanah, a doctoral candidate at Stony Brook University in New York, unexpectedly found comments from upset parents on Google Play while doing research on smartphone apps. He gave us the tip that prompted our investigation.

    “I find it very reprehensible that something like this happens, or is allowed to happen, to children especially,” Razaghpanah said. “I find it negligent on the part of people who are involved in making these apps, and people who serve up these ads in these applications.”

    Complaints about ads in children’s apps available from Apple

    The problem isn’t limited to Google Play. We found complaints in the Apple App Store about inappropriate ads showing up in some children’s apps.

    Pam Dixon is the executive director of the World Privacy Forum, a non-profit public interest research group. She saw sexually suggestive ads tied to children’s apps. She downloaded them from Apple on an older iPhone.

    “It’s a really disgusting thing,” Dixon said. “Kid’s apps should be really safe. And the ads are completely inappropriate for children.”

    Apple didn’t respond to our questions.

    The developers who created the apps for Apple or Google Play didn’t respond either.

    Google tested the apps that we flagged. They didn’t find any pornographic material.

    But, they did find inappropriate ads that violated their policies for their Designed for Families age-appropriate app program.

    Google added that they still count on the community of users, developers and partners to flag apps for additional review.

    “The only feeling I can describe is being violated,” George said. “That’s how I felt. So naturally, I was angry with that.”

    What you can do to help protect your kids

    Here are the links to report the bad apps to Google and Apple and not just leave comments in the comment section.

    Meantime, here’s some advice from the World Privacy Forum to help protect your children:

    • Make sure you have the latest browser update on your device.
    • Turn on safe search.
    • Buy the paid version of the app. Most won’t have ads.
    • Avoid free apps that have a small number of downloads.
    • Avoid free apps that have repetitive positive comments they may be fake.
    • You can also test free apps for inappropriate ads by playing them in airplane mode.

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