Kids love cooking games – and tablets and smartphones provide a fun and interactive play experience. But what about when it comes to disguised advertisements for unhealthy processed foods?
A children’s gardening and feeding app recently won the digital equivalent of an Oscar, a timely gong given the current public interest in encouraging children to cook. Dirtgirlworld, a game played on smartphones and tablets, teaches kids how to grow food from scratch and cook delicious meals. It’s ecological, full of fair food messages and quite charming. But are kids cooking apps delicious, fun, or bad for their health?
The size of the children’s app market is hard to pin down, but a survey by children’s marketer Kids Industries shows young people chew them up like, well, kids in a candy store. Its survey of 2,200 parents in the UK and US found that they download an average of 27 apps per year for their children – more than a fortnight. According to Ofcom (PDF), 28% of children aged 5 to 15 own a smartphone and 14% use a tablet, while a separate international study claims that almost twice as many preschoolers can use a tablet. smartphone application (26%). like tie their shoelaces (11%). No wonder it’s boom time for children’s app developers.
I asked my junior jury of two (ages 11 and eight) to test out some of the most popular cooking apps for kids. The verdict? Most games were declared as a yawn, with a few exceptions. The hugely popular Cooking Mamma app (a video game spin-off) was clearly the favorite. My judges disappeared into a vortex of play, touching, shaking, and tilting the tablet as they “baked” under the tutelage of the rather peculiar animated mom. Maybe it makes kids want to cook real food – and this has turned out to be a great digital babysitter – but I doubt kids learn much about cooking. Additionally, many users don’t appreciate having to purchase additional revenue on top of the £ 4.99 download fee – a common complaint with apps. But most depressingly, this exercise revealed how most of the best-selling apps mirror the processed sugar addicted world we live in: frosting a cupcake, having ice cream, licking a lollipop, flipping a burger, directing. a pizza restaurant.
The so-called “advergames” ring the loudest alarm bells. The Family and Parenting Institute recently accused junk food makers of using mobile games to target children through “stealth,” citing Chewits and Lovehearts as examples of brands using advergames to offer sugary treats.
Fast food companies are also jumping into the action and partnering with the developers of the most popular children’s apps. Last month, Burger King launched a promotional campaign with the creators of the cult game Cut the Rope, and McDonald’s partnered with the creators of Angry Birds to lure kids through doors in China.
The UK Advertising Code states that advertisements must be “clearly identifiable as such”. To many adults, these branded mobile games seem like just commercials. However, in its review of 60 studies in 12 countries, the Family and Parenting Institute found that most children under the age of 10 cannot recognize advertising disguised as gambling. Worse, there is evidence that games increase in makes children desire foods high in sugar, salt and fat.
As the childhood obesity debate rages on, food manufacturers in the United States have also come under attack for “hooking” children to junk food through mobile games. Nutritionists and psychologists have called for tighter controls on companies marketing “nutritionally poor” foods to children in this way. While new voluntary restrictions on junk food advertising will be phased in by 2016, it is unclear whether they will actually apply to smartphone and tablet apps.
Even the most benign brands are wrong. In February, the ad’s watchdog ordered Weetabix to shut down its Weetakid app, arguing that the game made children inferior if they didn’t eat the cereal.
John Kent, digital director at Kids Industries, says smartphones and tablets present a “new and delicate landscape” for brands and consumers to negotiate.
“The iPad didn’t come out until 2010 – multi-touch screens didn’t really exist before – so it’s new territory,” he says. “A game is part of a learning experience for a child and organizations want to engage with children in this way. At the same time, most of them are very aware of their responsibilities to get it right. and they know they’ll be shot if they don’t. It’s a challenge. “
Kent says earning the trust of parents is crucial for any organization that wants to reach children through online games and apps. Recent cases of children racking up bills of hundreds of pounds without their parents’ knowledge by clicking on paid content just shouldn’t happen, he says.
I admit that I don’t give too much importance to the applications that my children want to download, beyond asking them what they cost and what they involve. Next time, a supervised game of “finding the ad” might be in order before they start cooking.
Kids need supervision just as much when playing online as they do when helping in the kitchen. Photograph: Alamy