That’s the shocking finding of a new study analyzing how developers collect and share personal digital information while children are using many of the tens of thousands of digital apps created for kids — a trend that is on the rise during the coronavirus pandemic as more and more children shelter and study at home.
“My colleagues and I found that 67% of the apps played by 3- to 4-year-old children collected these sorts of digital identifiers — mobile serial numbers or ID codes that can be traced back to the device’s owner — and shared them with ‘third party’ marketing companies,” said lead author Dr. Jenny Radesky, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Michigan Medicine C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital.
“The fact that two thirds of apps used by very young children transmit information about their online activity — information that is ultimately used to target ads — suggests that COPPA noncompliance is indeed widespread, and more enforcement is needed,” said Angela Campbell, who directs the Institute for Public Representation Communications and Technology Clinic at Georgetown Law, in an accompanying editorial.
Why is this alarming? Because the tapped information can be used by businesses to identify personality traits or behavioral weaknesses that leave children open to risk for manipulation or exploitation, the study said.
“It is incredible how much can be inferred from a child’s gameplay behavior: their impulsivity, responses to rewards, or information processing,” said Radesky, who is a developmental behavioral pediatrician and a lead author of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ screen time guidelines.
“Educational technology reveals even more about our children’s strengths and weaknesses, including data such as their behavioral self-control or learning disabilities,” she added.
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